Hearts of Agave maximiliana Baker
Agave maximiliana Baker piñas / Image courtesy of Estancia Raicilla

It languished in relative obscurity for decades and was written off as Mexican moonshine, but raicilla has finally found its footing in the spirits market. Now, artisanal raicilla rubs shoulders with sotols and mezcals on bar menus across North America. Yet, outside of select circles, it maintains an enigmatic appeal.

Man in cowboy hat hacked leaves off an agave heart
Maestro Raicillero Santiago Díaz Ramos harvesting agave hearts. / Image courtesy of Hacienda El Divisadero

What is raicilla?

“Raicilla is the mezcal of Jalisco,” says Nikhil Bahadur, co-owner of raicilla brand Las Perlas.

An agave spirit made from a variety of wild and cultivated plants in Jalisco, there are two distinct strains of raicilla: de la costa (coastal) and de la sierra (mountainous).

Whereas most mountainous raicilla is produced with maximiliana Baker, inaequidens Koch and valenciana agaves, coastal raicilla typically incorporates a wider range of agaves into the final product, including angustifolia Haw and rhodacantha.

Large earthen oven with roaring fire, two men passing agave hearts
Heating the oven before roasting the fresh agave / Photo courtesy of Estancia Raicilla

How is raicilla made?

After the agave is harvested, the pencas (agave leaves) are separated from the piñas (agave hearts). The latter are roasted, fermented and distilled in tabernas (raicilla distilleries) by raicilleros (distillers).

Coastal raicillas are made typically with more ancestral methods.

“In our case, our oven has stone walls made both of brick and volcanic rock,” says Jorge Luis Carbajal Díaz, co-owner of Las Perlas and a fourth-generation raicilla producer from Cabo Corrientes on the Jalisco coast. “The oven is pre-heated for 8–10 hours. Once it’s warmed up…we add the agave hearts and leave them underground for three days.”

After the piñas have roasted below ground, they’re mashed and left to ferment for around 30 days before they move to distillation. On the coast, traditional wood-fired stills, commonly referred to as Filipino-style, have been favored for more than 200 years. Distillation occurs inside a clay or copper chamber, itself contained within a hollow tree trunk. Mountainous raicilla producers lean toward copper alembic pot stills.

Although some producers, like La Venenosa, offer single-distilled raicillas, many brands stick to double distillations.

Two men sealing an earthen oven with mud and stones
Sealing an oven / Photo courtesy of Estancia Raicilla

What does raicilla taste like?

More fragrant than Tequila and without the signature smokiness of mezcal, raicilla is noted for floral and vegetal overtones. But the taste comes down mostly to terroir.

Carbajal Díaz points to the distinction between the dry coastal and sweeter mountainous raicillas as a perfect example. “It’s a totally different taste,” he says. “There’s no point of comparison between the two.”

In La Estancia, Jalisco, where Rio Chenery, the co-owner of Estancia Raicilla, grows agave, the surrounding fauna contributes to the spirit’s overall flavor profile.

“It grows below pine trees and so it takes on sort of like these piney, fresh flavors and it just has an inherently botanical profile,” says Chenery, adding that “a few of our batches have this sort of pear and orange blossom profile.”

There are certainly some misconceptions swirling about raicilla, though.

“People think raicillas will be funky or blue cheesy or this or that… [but] it’s not moonshine. It doesn’t have to be kind of funky or crazy or harsh,” says Bahadur.

Copper pipes catching distillate from a wooden Filipino-style still
Distillate exiting a still / Photo courtesy of Estancia Raicilla

How should you drink it?

Unlike Tequila and mezcal, raicilla should be served cold. While Dueñas Peña recommends using a grappa glass filled to the mid-point of the bulb for the best results, Chenery prefers it on the rocks. “All that floral flavor really comes on the nose and it’s beautiful,” he says.

But if you really want to get weird with it, Chenery’s partner, Paola Coria, recommends raicilla alongside jicama sticks sprinkled with finely ground coffee beans or sliced green tomato with a dash of agave worm salt (sal de gusano). She also recommends it as a replacement for gin in a Negroni.

The spirit’s versatility lends itself to mixed drinks. Dedicated raicillerías (raicilla bars), like Puerto Vallarta’s La Lulú Raicillería, have sprung up across Mexico and beyond, and cocktail menus featuring raicilla are becoming more widespread.

“It’s a really versatile spirit, which is, I think, why we’re having some success with cocktails. I think that’s because bartenders love to play with it,” says Chenery. “You know, mezcal is always up, it’s always gonna come forward [and] be the main sort of player in a cocktail. Raicilla can be a back player…it doesn’t have to be the main show.”

The history of raicilla

As with any formerly illicit regional spirit, the history of raicilla remains fuzzy. According to Jorge Antonio Dueñas Peña, owner of Destiladora del Real and raicilla historian, the spirit dates to the 17th century in San Sebastián del Oeste, a mountainous mining town in Jalisco. La Venenosa touts the raicilla’s 500-year history and claims it was renamed in the 18th century to avoid a tax levied by the Spanish crown.

Whatever the truth, raicilla was produced clandestinely in small towns and villages across Jalisco and sold on the street in old Coke bottles or plastic jugs. Estancia Raicilla nods cleverly to the roadside roots of raicilla, as it sells its small-batch spirits in glassware made from recycled Coke bottles.

Photo of sign with agave name, variety, number and other information
Agave angustifolia / Image courtesy of Las Perlas

Designation of Origin

In June, raicilla was awarded Denominación de Origen (DO) status by the Mexican government, which protects the name and establishes rules for the spirit’s production. Agave spirits produced outside of the 16 Jalisco municipalities and one lone Nayarit municipality, Bahía de Banderas, cannot market their products as raicilla.

The decision hasn’t been without backlash. Some have contested the inclusion of Bahía de Banderas, a region with no history of raicilla production.

“[Incorporating] Nayarit was a whim of one person who said, ‘We have to include it,’ but I was always opposed,” says Dueñas Peña, who also founded the Mexican Raicilla Promotion Council. “I even submitted a letter to the INPI (Mexican Institute of Industrial Production) in which I wasn’t in agreement with the inclusion of Nayarit, but it went ignored.”

Others questioned the inclusion of autoclave distillation. While used in commercial Tequila production, autoclaves, which speed up distillation and open the door for mass-production, have never historically been a part of raicilla process.

“I don’t think that should have been included at all… That’s just not how raicilla has ever been produced, so why put that in there?” says Bahadur. Chenery says that thought needs to be given to “how the rules and certification process will impact these smaller producers.”

Controversy over the finer details of raicilla’s protected status aside, the stage seems set for this once-maligned artisanal spirit to become the latest star of the drink world. Whether you choose try it in a cocktail or sip it neat in all its floral glory is up to you.