What It Is and Where It Comes From
Raicilla (pronounced ‘rye-see-yah’) is often referred to as ‘Mexican Moonshine’. Literally meaning “little root”, it is said that the name Raicilla was originally used to disguise this type of mezcal in order escape taxes and restrictions on production. What began as an ancient homegrown art is now growing into a small commercial enterprise but don’t bother rushing out to your local liquor warehouse or feverishly searching Google for places to buy it online. It is still very much a local specialty. In fact, when I asked about buying a bottle when visiting Cabo San Lucas, liquor proprietors there had never heard about it. That’s because it’s only made in the State of Jalisco, a mountainous region surrounding the City of Puerto Vallerta. Every spring, Puerto Vallarta hosts a raicilla festival in the city’s main plaza, where distillers show off and sell their wares, professionally packaged and labeled.
How It’s Made
But the origins of Raicilla and much of its production are still under the radar. In many cases, raicilla is still sold like bootleg liquor from wandering street vendors on side streets, in small palapas clinging to the mountainsides at the edge of town, or from somebody’s front porch in a screw-top plastic Coke bottle. Jalisco’s reddish brown soil and distinct weather patterns provide the perfect climate for raising Agave Lechuguilla, a smaller green variety of agave that is brewed to produce raicilla.
Raicilla production is nearly identical to the process for making mainstream blue agave tequila except that every step of this process is done completely by hand:
- The agaves are grown for 8 to 10 years, the leaves and flowering stalk are cut off so all of the plants sugars are directed to the heart. The resulting ‘piñas’ (resembling gigantic pineapples) are harvested by “Jimadores” who cut away the spiny outer leaves with long handled knives (coas).
- These pinas, initially weighing about 100 pounds each, are then placed in large wood fired brick ovens (hornos) where they are baked for 24 hours.
- They are next chopped into chunks with machetes and beaten into a pulp with large wooden mallets (mazos) in a wooden tray called a”batea”.
- The crushed agave and juice is placed in 100 liter wooden vats with copper bottoms (perols) where it ferments with the natural plant yeasts for 7 – 9 days.
- After fermentation is complete a cap is placed on the vat and sealed with adobe mud, this is connected to a copper distillation coil and the wood fired vat. After distilling for about 8 hours, the results are 100% natural Raicilla known as “Las Raicillas del Real”.
How It Tastes
The raicilla I purchased had a smoky aroma, like being at a BBQ, and went down smooth. A lime wedge and salt definitely wouldn’t do it justice. Proofs range from 70 to over 150 proof. Traditionally, its quality is judged by tossing a few drops up into the air and if they evaporate before hitting the ground, it’s top notch.
I conducted a similar experiment by accidentally breaking the bottle I purchased and noticed that when it dripped onto my hand, it quickly evaporated leaving my fingers dry. This rapid disappearance into thin air prompted me to direct the remaining contents to my mouth where it would serve a better purpose…1 tequila….2 tequila…3 tequila (you get the idea).