Raicilla: Mexican moonshine or Jalisco’s most overlooked liquor?
Most people who come to Mexico are all too familiar with tequila; many will have enjoyed its stronger, smokier cousin mezcal and some may even have tried the ancient, milky looking drink known as pulque. But there is one agave-based beverage that very few visitors or even residents are familiar with: raicilla.
Native to Jalisco, raicilla is a potent moonshine liquor produced in the coastal region around Puerto Vallarta. It is made in 16 Jalisco municipalities from the “lechugilla” agave, a smaller, greener plant than the blue agave used in tequila production, most commonly found in the desserts of Chihuahua and Sonora and the Sierra Madre mountain range.
Racilla was first distilled in the early 17th century and became the drink of choice for miners based in the mountains of western Jalisco. The harsh, unique-tasting spirit was originally named raicilli in order to escape taxes and restrictions on alcohol production.
Brewed in very small-scale operations, for years raicilla was hawked by clandestine roadside vendors in recycled plastic bottles. It remains most commonly manufactured and sold in the towns of Atenguillo, Etzatlan, Guachinango, Hostotipaquillo, Mascota, San Sebastian del Oeste, Talpa de Allende, El Tuito and Cimarron Chico de la Raicilla, which takes its name from the drink.
Only in recent years has raicilla become a legitimate product, with the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fishing and Food (SAGARPA) now estimating annual sales of up to 100,000 bottles, mostly sold in local craft shops and restaurants.
Slightly sweet, but with a harsh flavour, raicilla is clear, or has a very faint brown tinge, and can vary significantly in quality. It can be consumed straight, with salt and lime, on the rocks, or mixed with grapefruit soda. Contrary to popular myth, the drink has no hallucinogenic properties.
For the last five years, Mascota has hosted the annual Raicilla Cultural Festival, with the most recent edition taking place last December. Supported by the municipal government and the Jalisco Department of Tourism, the event features tastings, tours and lectures on raicilla production and the history of the drink, plus live music and dancing.
Perhaps the best known raicilla distiller is Destilador del Real, based in Cimarron Chico de la Raicilla. Real combines traditional production techniques with modern technology to create more refined blanco, reposado and añejo raicillas, each at 36 percent ABV (alcohol by volume).
In 1997, Real owner Jorge Dueñas secured a collective “Raicilla Jalisco” mark to protect production and established the Mexican Council of Raicilla Promoters. All raicilla producers must now be members of the council and there are currently around 70 members.
The “Raicilla Jalisco” mark means that production is officially regulated to guarantee a quality product and also serves as the first step toward securing a protected designation of origin.
Destilador del Real does not have a store in Guadalajara but Dueñas comes to the city to sell his produce every Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m. To pick up a bottle call him on 322-131-6270 or for more information on Real call 322-297-2863.
Alternatively, 400 Conejos bar, located at Avenida Chapultepec 20A, stocks seven different brands of the spirit. These include the establishment’s own brand, La Venenosa Raicilla, with two different versions available for 310 or 330 pesos per bottle.
For more on mezcal and pulque see my feature on top tequila alternatives.