Did you know that the name "raicilla" was trademarked by Jose Cuervo until the 1990's? And that it was not allowed to be exported under this name until 2019 even though it's production is 300 years old?
Before we jump in, let's first make some important distinctions and lay the groundwork for the meat of the article.
What is the difference between Tequila, Mezcal, Raicilla, Bacanora, and Sotol?
These all are Mexican Denomination of Origins (DOs) for agave spirits.
The main purpose of the DO is to designate the region of Mexico where the agave spirit came from.
Before these names existed, there was only "vino de mezcal" or "mezcal."
It is important to note that no matter the region of Mexico agave spirits are produced, the process for distilling is relatively the same from a big picture standpoint.
In This Article
Today, we will be discussion the more detailed nuances of one particular agave spirit, raicilla.
There are two different kinds of racillia in Jalisco, of the coast "de la costa" and of the mountain "de la sierra."
This article will be an in-depth overview about raicilla of the mountains.
If you want to get a little more educated about raicilla before reading, we have a general overview of here.
Before we jump in, I have found that there is a lot of conflicting information on the internet about what I am going to share.
I cannot say whether my information is more true, but I can say that I write based on my personal and professional experiences, observations, and these are my opinions formulated from them.
Enter The Land Of Raicilla
Raicilla Sierra of Jalisco, Wild Agave Maximiliana.
My Introduction to Raicilla
After spending a lot of time meeting with raicilla producers, brand owners, area locals, and bartenders, I've come to know more about raicilla than I ever thought I would.
Of course this is due to my living situation in the heart of raicilla territory and increasing my education for Mezcal For Life.
It is my hope to share with you my discoveries, observations, and first-hand accounts on what raicilla of the Sierra Madre Occidental is, where it's headed, and what it means.
My very first encounter with raicilla was at a local party in Puerto Vallarta.
Most of the people were treating it like a taboo shot of Malort and calling it "moonshine" (it was once thought of as moonshine in Mexico).
Thankfully there was one knowledgeable person there that had true respect for this agave spirit and was able to give me a proper introduction.
Raicilla had a certain allure to me. It is less popular, funky, and against the grain, at least in people's minds... right up my alley.
The more I found out about it, the more I wanted to know. So I began what amounts to now as an eight month investigation.
Fast forward, my eyes a little wider, I truly began to understand what it is and how different it was from my first impressions.
I believe that even the locals mindset about raicilla is shifting as well in this short time period.
Raicilliarias are now opening in the area, it is being sipped (not shot), and bartenders are getting more knowledgeable about it in Puerto Vallarta.
Another factor could be the rise of mezcal in the United States and tourists asking for it.
It is very hard to get good mezcal in Puerto Vallarta (surprise I know). I believe raicilla is their answer to that demand.
How To Get Raicilla In Jalisco
In Jalisco, you can find raicilla at pretty much any store that is located in or near a town that produces raicilla.
These raicilla producing towns in Jalisco are; Atengo, Chiquilistlán, Juchitlán, Tecolotlán, Tenamaxtlán, Puerto Vallarta, Cabo Corrientes, Tomatlán, Atenguillo, Ayutla, Cuautla, Guachinango, Mascota, Mixtlán, San Sebastián del Oeste, and Talpa de Allende in Jalisco, as well as Bahía de Banderas in Nayarit state.
If you are not in one of these towns and are in a place like Guadalajara or Puerto Vallarta, you will most likely need to go to a bar, restaurant, or a liquor store specialized in agave spirits.
But there is a more fun alternative... ROAD TRIP!
Jalisco has a few "Rutas de Raicilla." El Tuito and to Mascota to mention a couple.
From Puerto Vallarta, you can take the main road up to San Sebastian del Oeste which is about an hour and a half away to get a quick introduction to this agave spirit.
Click here to rent a camper van for your Routa de Raicilla.
From there you can also take the extra leg to Mascota, but these producers are harder to find even though Mascota claims to be the "capital" of raicilla.
It is rather difficult to discern who actually produces it.
Some people have an entire distillation set up just for show. Some people look like they make it, will tell you they make it, and are only street vendors.
What I have come to find is that there are actually a lot less tabernas than the representation of local brands might lead you to believe.
Semi-Cultivated Agave Maximiliana For Experimentation
In this region, agave Maximiliana is the most common agave used to make raicilla.
This agave is mainly grown in the wild. Although it is present on a few farms, it is not "farmed" in the traditional sense, but semi-cultivated. Over the last 10 or so years there have been more plantings due to the increase in production.
Most of the agave farms you see in this region are Blue Weber agave that are agaves earmarked for tequila production.
Near San Sebastian del Oeste, we are far outside of the tequila Denomination of Origin for distillation, but it is still technically "legal" Blue Weber agave.
Agave Maximiliana can be identified in this region by its red tips.
There is another type of agave used in raicilla, agave Lechuguilla (also a green agave). However, a 100% Lechuguilla presentation of raicilla is very rare, but used in ensambles.
To note this one is piece of conflicting information from the internet as Wikipedia states agave Inaequidens is used in this region, but that is not what I have seen or have heard producers using.
Juan Pablo Mercado from La Reina Raicilla stated "Locals refer to Lechuguilla as to Agave maximiliana , (yet on the internet says inaquidens)."
All-in-all, agave Maximiliana is in very short supply and as demand increases producers are going to get more creative as more pressure is applied. Nothing new for the agave industry, just look at tequila and mezcal.
The agave's sugar content in this region is highest from January to March and is traditionally harvested from November to July.
I was told to be careful if I came across producers who make raicilla outside of this time frame because they are most likely adding "something" as torrential rain from August to November makes it impossible to harvest agave in the mountains.
At the moment, the production of raicilla cannot satisfy the local demand.
Some producers in the area have chosen to reserve 50% of their production for export. A move to get their "brand" out there, no doubt. Very few actually have distribution outside of the local area.
Raicilla clay oven being repaired.
Raicilla production in the Sierra Madre is mainly artisanal and can be summed up as;
- Machine shredded (admittedly raicilleros least favorite part about production)
- Clay oven
- Fermented in wooden vats
- Mountain stream water
- Arabic still (twice distilled)
A Raicilla Taberna in San Sebastian ~ Tesoro Del Oeste
Production capacity in rare cases reaching up to 20,000 liters per month. Due to agave supply, time, and other factors most people produce around 600 to 1000 liters per month. Relatively speaking this is very low production when compared against other agave spirits.
When it comes to ancestral production, the amount of producers using this method can be counted on one hand. They use tree trunk stills, clay pots, and wooden mallets to mash the agave.
La Reina Raicilla Artisinal
When it comes to the presentation of raicilla, it is pretty straight forward compared to the other agave spirits from a creative point of view.
It usually clocks in at around 40-42% ABV. Producers are starting to make higher ABV presentations near the 50% ABV range in the last couple of years.
Although raicilleros love experimenting for their own consumption, you won't find very many ensambles, pechugas, puntas, or barrel aged presentations available for sale.
You will however find a lot of infusions with local fruits.
Raicilla Tasting Profile
When you taste raicilla there is a vast array of flavors and smells.
Here are some smell and tasting notes that you will experience:
Tasting the raicila in the taberna where it is made will enhance the experience. Here you can absorb the smells from the production around you. I really encourage you to take a trip out here. You'll really get a feel for what you are drinking when all five senses are involved.
A Case For Why I Think Raicilla Deserves More Recognition Than It Gets
There is a stereotype out there that raicilla is the redheaded stepchild of the agave spirits or that is like moonshine.
I believe that these stereotypes have some false pretenses that the spirit still has not been able to shake off for hundreds of years.
Without intent to try to change your mind, I am at liberty to at least make a case to put it on a higher pedestal:
- It is arguably the first agave spirit that came into existence
- The spirit is and had always been "very small batch"
- The supply of agave to make raicilla is very low making it rare
- Their is a heightened level of respect for the farming and production of the spirit
- Lastly, the tasting profile and flavor complexities out-weigh the rivaling agave spirits
The Best Way To Taste Raicilla
Raicilla Tasting Presentation
Below are the best accompaniments to your raicilla tasting and it is best to include all of them to make a great presentation.
- Palate cleanser - mint infused mineral water
- Herbal - rosemary sprigs
- Bitter - green apple
- Citrus - grapefruit
- Floral - edible flower
My Top 4 Must-Try Raicillas By Taste (and other factors that I find important)
- Tesoro Del Oeste (uncompromising dedication to quality and sustainability)
- La Reina Ancestral (flavor profile that cannot be beat)
- Lobo de la Sierra (coveted raicillero and personality character)
- La Venenosa Azul (by local legend Don Guelo)
The availability of these raicillas in the United States is very limited at the time of this writing, but I suspect as the popularity for raicilla increases these will be the rising stars.
Last Updated: 04/09/22
Greg Rutkowski, President
Greg is a lover of agave spirits, handicrafts, and barware. In 2020 he married all of his loves and created a business bringing amazing pieces from all over Mexico to the United States. Learn more here.