Jalisco may be famous for its tequila, but have you ever heard of raicilla? If not, it may only be a matter of time until this potent liquor becomes a household name.
Recently, the president of the Mexican Council of Raicilla Promoters, Alfredo Cachua Torres, announced that the fermented drink will receive a denomination of origin designation in March. What this means is that if you’re searching for authentic raicilla, it must come from a certain geographic region of Mexico, similar to tequila here in Jalisco and champagne in France.
“For this type of beverage, I see more future for the export of raicilla to Europe, where the quality is what determines consumption,” said Cachua Torres. “North America has other factors, not just quality, that determines the market.”
Crafted in mountainous and coastal communities around Puerto Vallarta, the spirit derives from agave strands known as maximiliana, rhodacantha and inaequidens. More simply, they are called “lechugilla,” which is smaller and more verdant than the blue plant used to make tequila. Distilleries exist in the towns of Atengo, Cabo Corrientes, Chiquilistlán, Juchitlán, Tecolotlán, Tenamaxtlán, Tomatlán, Atenguillo, Cuautla, Guachinango, Mascota, San Sebastián del Oeste and Talpa.
While heightening exports and sales to Europe is the primary objective, the council also wants to eliminate imitations failing to meet standards. Roadside vendors historically sold imitations of the pungent liquid in recycled plastic bottles. In terms of the process, normally raicilla must be distilled in oak wood that gives it its signature smokey robust taste tinted with chipotle, peppery and floral flavors.
How long raicilla has been around is up for debate. Certain sources say that the drink existed long before the Spanish conquest, whereas others claim it began in the 17th century as a homemade liquor to avoid taxation and prohibition of alcohol consumption; hence its association with moonshine and bootlegging. Over time, it became a favorite beverage among miners in the hinterlands and eventually was brewed in small-scale factories.
Slowly but surely, raicilla has lost its clandestine connotations but is still struggling to become a legitimate product enjoyed throughout Mexico. Nonetheless, it can be found in artisan markets, bars and restaurants in Guadalajara and across the state, although it still isn’t as popular as tequila.
“It’s the flavor,” said Ana Luisa Márquez, a bartender at Joselito Mezcal, a traditional Mexican bar in downtown Guadalajara.”It’s too strong and weird for some people. Most customers prefer something sweet. You can mix it with something else but it’s not for everyone.”
Undeniably strong, raicilla can be clear as water or tinted with a faded brown hue. Like tequila, it is often consumed with salt or lime and accompanied by spicy slices of orange. Urban legend says that the elixir has hallucinogenic properties, which is false and has made the drink more infamous than its agave counterparts. This is gradually changing.
“It’s becoming popular because people are finally starting to know and taste it,” said Alan Contreras, one of the owners and co-founders of Agüita Mezcaleria in Guadalajara. “Before, people were scared of raicilla because it was too strong. They used to say that when you buy raicilla, you needed to know how many blocks you were going to walk because you could get too drunk and black out. Now it’s becoming more regulated and we have a process to make it. People are starting to not believe the myths.”
Every year, there’s the Raicilla Cultural Festival in Mascota sponsored by the municipal government and Jalisco Department of Tourism. Visitors can taste the variety of raicilla while going on tours, listening to lectures about the production and history, not to mention enjoying music and dance.
Destilador del Real is one of the best known raicilla producers in the region. It is owned by Jorge Dueñas, who succeeded in combining traditional production techniques with modern technology to create his own unique blend with a 36 percent ABV (alcohol by volume). Back in 1997, Dueñas started the Mexican Council of Raicilla Promoters, which was the first step in securing a denomination of origin.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fishing and Food (SAGRPA) estimates that more than 100,000 bottles of raicilla are sold annually. With the denomination of origin, however, it is expected to reach a wider market and provide much-needed income to the 16 municipalities producing the pleasant intoxicant.
Be on the lookout for next week’s feature on the cultivation and distillation process of raicilla.