Raicilla is a Mexican spirit, distilled like tequila and mezcal from the genus Agave. Essentially a Jalisciense mezcal, raicilla was granted a Denominación de Origen (DdO) in January 2019, the application of which has already engendered controversy. Originating in southwestern Jalisco, traditionally raicilleros created and sold their product without government regulation as allowable DdO production within Jalisco had previously been solely relegated to tequila. (As a side note, in 1999 the Cuervo family lost its exclusive right of use for the name raicilla, which it had held since the 19th century.) The most common agave species used to produce raicillas include angustifolia, maximiliana, inaequidens, valenciana, rhodacantha, silvestri and others, with the noted exception of azul — tequila’s sole agave source. Most production occurs from December to May. Production areas and styles include:
- La Costa — northern and more sub-tropical, rising from the sea upland with fruity and smoky characteristics
- Sierra — possessing the greatest number of distillers, often offering more herbaceous and complex characteristics
- Southern — retains a longer tradition, possesses the largest diversity of agave varieties and technical styles
My guide through raicilla-land was Xavier Villegran, owner of Balam brand. Villegran works mainly as a negotiant, sourcing what he thinks best from a variety of sources bottling a variety of categories and styles so as to create a definable brand. “Before my Oaxacan wife married me, I’d visit her in Tehuana, learning and falling in love with the magic of her culture and its native mezcal as I did the woman.” Balam is founded upon sourcing a wide range of small production, wildcrafted Mexican spirits.
For two centuries, the Contreras clan has distilled tequila at their Valle de Juarez home in the Sierras de Tigre, also Balam’s name of this bottling, whereas their more ancestral raicilla is made at 2,000 m elevation with pulquero, silvestri and mezcal bruto — different names for the wild species harvested at 18–20 years of age. Jesus Lupian Contreras makes a liter of raicilla from 30 kg of wild agave piñas randomly harvested at 2,100 m within a 50 km radius, some of which can weigh as much as 50 kg. Water from a mountain spring two miles away is carried by mule to the distillation site to be used at varying stages of the process. The seven-meter circumference oven of pumice is bottomed with oak logs, which are set afire. Pumice is then placed atop the burning oak, and as many as 100 piñas are added, covered with canvas and layered with mud. After cooking three days, the piñas are removed and placed onto a pad where a stone wheel pulled by two mules crushes them. All juice and fiber are then placed into fermentation vats. Fermentation begins naturally, without the addition of yeast. The barril (beer) will be ready between 5–10 days, after which the beer is transferred to the distillation area. There, an oak oven below is kept at a constant temperature, purely by feel — no thermometer.
The fermenting pulp is then wheelbarrowed from the fermentation room back to the ceramic distillation vessels, where water is often added to dilute the juice and prevent scorching. Some of the pulp is used to seal the cooking vessels from the air outside, helping manage heat and trap smoke.
The floor is soon swept of the ashes shoveled from the fire, and new oak is added. The mash heats to boiling, and the first spirit comes off the still at 20% ABV. Some of this will be distilled a second time, to 50%, with the two distillates later blended down to around 40%. Each step is carried out with meticulous care, the result of years of experience — even the fire is built with great skill, so as to not grow too fast or give off too much smoke. Contreras touches the water in the copper pans atop the vessels to check the temperature. He adds cold water as needed to keep the still turning vapor into distillate.
Hacienda Meson dates to the conquistadores. Commercialized in 2015, Saité (Huichol for “must”) raicilla is produced by fifth-generation Edgar Saul Covarrubias Fletes and business partner Carlos Flores from a family tradition. Inaequidens and rhodacanta are harvested from Covarrubias’s 500 hectare Rancho Los Tepetates in the Sierra de Amula. “He owns the town,” laughs Villegran. With 600 L lots produced sporadically throughout the year, “commercialization is a little difficult here because people prefer tequila,” Flores admitted, “but we’ve made many appointments with wine sellers and fairs to promote it.” Covarrubias also grows agave azul for large firms. Currently exporting to California and Illinois, he also contracts for Duque Luciano, a bottling smokier than Saité.
With wind blowing through dried corn stalks and the sounds of sheep nearby, I was welcomed to the 1,700 m altitude Los Jecales by Peña and his wife, Raffaela, with cups of Lobo de la Sierra raicilla. This was quickly followed by mugs of a hibiscus-raicilla cocktail. Geraldo shares how he first commercialized the operation in 2003, from what had long been a family tradition. In addition to a recently established cultivation site, he also harvests wildcrafted agave of 8–18 years of age. He slices each piña into 8–20 pieces, depending on size, and then moves the processed pieces to his home oven. He heats the agave pieces over an oak pit fire, covered with river rocks, where they are left to roast for three days. Once removed, they’re crushed with a wood mallet and placed into a fermentation barrel. After 5–6 days of fermentation, the fiber/liquid combo goes into the still for 6 hours over a wood fire and is distilled at around 40% ABV. A gas-fired distillation is done for a second running, coming off at 75%. Along with a third proprietary distillate, a final blend is diluted to 40% with water sourced from a well on the property.
Rio Chenery’s Estancia label came to be in 2013, when he was a resident of Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. “After a particularly cold New York City winter I decided to move to my mother’s home in Puerto Vallarta to make our family’s favorite agave spirit, to work with my hands in the countryside rather than at a computer all day in Manhattan.” Soon after his visit, a second oven was completed, allowing him and his crew the flexibility of both 2.5 and 4.5-ton capacity ovens, with locally made clay amphora stills of 4 x 300 L and 5 x 400 L, plus 2 x 1,100 L oak fermentation vats. To supply this growth, Chenery’s purchased a 115 ha swathe of nearby land where his wild agaves grow and has commenced planting maximiliana on it, and where the Aussie/Mexican intends to build a solar-powered distillery with a few visitor cabanas. Due to the high alcohol taxes and low average incomes in Mexico, he only makes his 45% ABV version for export, a bonus considering the spirit’s power and complexity over the standard 40% abv.
Esteban Morales Garibi launched his La Venenosa Raicilla in the US in 2014 with Fidencio Spirits’ Arik Torren his US importer. “After Oaxaca, Jalisco has the largest amount of agave products along with the greatest diversity of stills, most of which are fashioned by those who distill with them and with some relying upon technology relevant as long as 500 years ago: clay stills of varying types, hollowed-out tree trunks, internal and external condensing stills, columns including the classic Coffey with many tweaks.” Torren continued enthusiastically, “It’s the only category embracing single distillation with the variety of species, stills and distillation, terroir and personal touches leading to an algorithm allowing for an amazing number of expressions,” claiming that Morales imparts no “house style,” as each is chosen based upon Esteban’s connection to the distiller. The Fair Trade-certified Sierra Occidental and Sierra Tigre are single distilled; the maximiliana-founded Puntas is overproof at 63.3% and double distilled. “Tabernas” is an affordable bottling of 4,000 bottles sourced from varying distillers heeding Morales’s personal tastes to build volume with a quality product that changes when the batch is sold out.
Chicago-based importer Juan Pablo Garciabueno’s Puntagave brand is a “Costa,” made from an earthen pit extraction, double distilled in a classic Filipino still under contract at Estancia. “We don’t want to be excluded because our ounce prices are high in comparison to many of the better-known tequilas and mezcals, and the smell and taste profiles are idiosyncratic enough!” Once selling as few as 40 cases annually when launching in 2001, “now I can sell that much in one day!” Garciabueno’s enjoyed a 30–40% sales increase during the 2020 pandemic over the 17 states into which it’s distributed. He views the appellation problem of agave spirits within Mexico as self-destructive. “A pity the producers are unable to work together in a categorical fashion,” he says. “I educate my distributor sales reps by emphasizing that the types of agave products vary as much as wine grapes and countries.”
Pedro Jimenez came upon the raicillas of Cabo Corrientes’s “Japo” when journeying with his wife in Jalapa in 2008. The three semi-cultivated agaves he uses are harvested completely ripe from 7 to 35 years of age. “Batch variation differs too much between producers to say that one species is distinct from another,” he says, a point in some part supported by the fact that each species grows in a single microclimate zone. His preferred supplier roasts piñas in an underground oven with oak or wild fig, leaving it up to 26 days, allowing for early fermentation to begin. They’re then left to rest up to 28 days, covered with palm leaves. The piñas are then crushed with wooden mallets, with spring water added to aid fermentation, which takes an additional 23 days, using only wild yeasts. The fermented wash is then distilled in a Filipino still and bottled at 48% ABV. Jimenez’s US importer, David Suro, is equally committed to communicating raicilla’s traditional aspects in the 20 states where it’s selectively distributed. “The advantage we have now,” Suro says, “is that people are willing to pay more for craft spirits.” This, he adds, despite the fact that some producers are beginning to move away from the historical and cultural aspects of production in order to grow volume. “I’m cautiously optimistic that the ecosystem, the culture will be maintained and not shift to what the market may demand,” Suro says.
Mexicat is a London-based partnership of bar owner Chris Peel, Ana Gomez and Jorge Alvarez who, at age 19, arrived in Los Angeles from his Guadalajara home to study, then backpack around Europe. “I knew tequilas then were poorly packaged and marketed,” Peel says. After interning at the Consejo Regulador del Tequila he worked at a cooperative distillery when he first tasted raicilla and visited many producers to find one whose work could have broader appeal. “Half of production is now with a double distillation, though people in the denominated 14 villages still single distill because it reflects the traditional preferences for higher alcohol and bigger flavors.” The partners launched their Mexicat lines of agave spirits September 2016, later bringing on sotol.
Las Perlas is distilled by fifth-generation raicillero Santiago Diaz Ramos from agaves angustifolia and rhodacantha harvested wild and semi-wild in the lush hills near the pueblo of Las Guásimos, above the Pacific coast south of Puerto Vallarta. Diaz uses a cylindrical below-ground clay oven, introducing water on the second day to add steam to the roasting process. Wood materials are used for the milling, and then a slow 3-week fermentation is by wild yeasts in a large rectangular vat. The first distillation is done in a 400 L pot still. The second is done with a small Filipino still, in which a bottom chamber contains a clay-enclosed copper pot, with the top chamber made from a hollowed-out white fig tree trunk. Each batch consumes 5–6 metric tons (2,200 lbs) of agaves, resulting in about 660 bottles.
Brian Rossi, owner of Denver’s Adelitas Cocina y Cantina, came to raicilla through his appreciation of La Venenosa’s Costa bottling, eventually traveling with its Esteban Morales to learn of his suppliers, and later forging a partnership to launch his 2019 Bonete brand, with his Sierra Occidental bottling crafted at La Estancia, his Costa at El Tuito. “I sell most raicillas at Adelitas as a neat pour in its truest form so all its nuances can be tasted, but many people drink it with a splash of grapefruit soda.”