As the summer heat only continues to peak and our long days stay sun-ridden, it seems as if summer has only really begun. There’s still plenty of time to keep these evenings filled with our favorite light, sun-soaked spirits like Mexico’s Tequila, Mezcal, and, more recently, Sotol. But before we spend the rest of our summer nights on the familiar, while favorite, there’s an ever-growing world out there of more agave-based spirits to explore. And the one we’ll examine today is Raicilla.
A Confluence of Tequila and Mezcal (If We Shall Compare)
Like Mezcal, Raicilla is roasted. (Remember: Mezcal is roasted in a pit to achieve its rich, smoke-filled body, while Tequila stays clean and smoke-free from its quite different steaming process. And Sotol sits somewhere mostly in between, which can give some labels just a hint of noticeable smoke here and there.) But unlike Mezcal, which is double-distilled, it only undergoes one distillation, and uses copper pots.
Its early days were spent mostly in farm country, as a modest and easily accessible spirit for the masses, but soon became a target of heavy taxation after the Spanish conquest in the early 1500s, causing production to go underground—in both senses
And like Tequila, it’s from Jalisco. It follows the same rules, too, as all agave spirits do—it’s designated to a specific region, the Denominación de Origen, so if it is made outside of Jalisco it’s not quite, legally, the same spirit. And then, unlike Tequila, it doesn’t have a single agave species behind it: Types can range from pata de mule to Maximilliana.
But, that’s enough comparison to other agave spirits to help get our bearings; it really is its own standalone spirit. Just like each wine, from each year, from each region, it has its own similar but entirely unique profile. Indeed, it has its own unique origins as well.
Raicilla’s Long-Standing History
The early days of Raicilla were mostly spent in farm country, as a modest and easily accessible spirit for the masses. But it soon became a target of heavy taxation after the Spanish conquest in the early 1500s, and this drove production to go underground—in both senses. And, for better or for worse, this underground movement is how this spirit also gained its name: When tax collectors visited the distillers, the distillers would claim that the spirits were not made using the heart (pina) of the plant, but rather the roots of an agave plant instead. Raicilla translates to “little root.” And while it may no longer be a high-tax, heavily controlled substance, the underground tradition still remains among some producers, completing the cycle by selling their Raicilla in discreet plastic bottles by the road.
Where Has It Been This Whole Time?
Raicilla, despite its pre-1500s status, is still on its way to becoming more heavily distributed to the United States and more globally—and why the majority of us likely haven’t heard of it until now, and the rest will likely not know about it for a while yet. That is, “Raicilla” did not exist as, essentially, a concept nor product in the United States whatsoever all the way through 2013—yes, just five short years ago.
While it’s no longer a high-tax, heavily controlled substance, the underground tradition still remains among some producers, completing the cycle by selling their Raicilla in discreet plastic bottles by the road
But in 2014, the first Raicilla entered the United States, and we have Arik Torren to thank for his very hard, concentrated work for that. Originally with a Mezcal background as the owner of Fidencio Mezcal, Mr. Torren was fascinated with the agave spirits space in general the more he learned, and became passionate about spreading the vast and diverse agave spirit collection and story to the rest of the world outside of Mexico. Now, nearly two years after the beginning of his quest, Mr. Torren is distributing seven expressions of Raicilla to the United States, and 25 states carry the spirit.
Given that Racillia can be made from a variety of agave plants in an even larger variety of proportions, there really is no one defining profile to capture them all. As you’ll see in the labels below, it can run from cheese on the nose to crisp, clean, and bright.
That is, “Raicilla” did not exist as, essentially, a concept nor product in the United States whatsoever all the way through 2013—yes, just five short years ago
La Venenosa Sierra del Tigre
Six of the seven expressions that Arik Torren distributes to the United States are from La Venosa, founded by Esteban Morales, who Mr. Torren approached as his chosen pioneer Raicilla partner to bring the spirit into the United States.
While the La Venosa line has a seriously strong line overall, the Sierra del Tigre is a particularly unique expression for highlighting. It’s made by master Tabernero Don Luis Contreras, at about 2,000 meters above sea level with the inaequidens (or “Bruto”) agave. The agave is wild-harvested from coniferous forests and roasted over wood in an earthen oven.
This underground movement is how Raicilla gained its name
The Sierra del Tigre de Jalisco is usually served at the close of the night, with its peculiar blue cheese scent. Despite the strong smell, the taste will surprise with chocolate and cherries, on a creamy and smooth finish. Only 700 liters are produced each year.
La Venosa Sierra Occidental de Jalisco
A bold Raicilla, the La Venosa Sierra Occidental de Jalisco is made by master Tabernero Don Ruben Pena, with Maximilliana agave from seed (rather than wild-harvested, as is quite prevalent in the agave spirits world).
Raicilla can be made from a variety of agave plants in an even larger variety of proportions, meaning it can run from cheese on the nose to crisp, clean, and bright with a creaminess on the palate
It is said that the Maximiliana agave plant exhibits some unique chemical compounds with strong therapeutic and other health benefits. Sierra Occidental de Jalisco shows some bright lemon and lime notes, with small hints of cocoa and black pepper.