Contrary to what your bartender may have told you the last time that you were sipping copitas of Del Maguey, not all mezcal comes from Oaxaca. While the majority of what you can find at your favorite high-end Mexican restaurants or tequila bars right now might originate in Mexico’s southernmost state, there are seven other states that can produce it legally—and if the past is any indication, they will all slowly but surely invade the American market as the international demand for agave spirits rises.
In recent years, we’ve seen several lesser-known artisanal Mexican spirits cross the border and flourish. Bacanora from Sonora (distilled from agave pacifica) and sotol from Chihuahua (distilled from the Desert Spoon plant) caused a frenzy among cocktail nerds. To add to the mix, there’s now another badass mezcal being produced in Jalisco—and big tequila companies are doing everything within their power to make sure you don’t know about it.
Imagine sipping on a fruity, leathery-smoked mezcal made from wild agave plants ripened under the coastal Mexican heat on a beach in Puerto Vallarta. This is the story behind raicilla, Jalisco’s other mezcal that is Puerto Vallarta’s best-kept secret. Thanks to La Venenosa, which just started importing the spirit to California, New York, Massachusetts, and several other states a few months ago, the U.S. has its first fully legal raicilla brand.
Raicilla tastes sweeter and more herbaceous than tequila or Oaxacan mezcal. (Photo courtesy Javier Cabral)
You can think of raicilla as a pre-hispanic, moonshine-style version of mezcal, distilled in the Jalisco coastal towns like Puerto Vallarta and its surrounding little villages such as Mascota, El Tuito, and Cabo Corrientes, among others. The process of making raicilla is similar to that of Oaxacan mezcal: Grow a wild agave (typically the Chico Aguiar and Maximilana varietals) for about eight years, fire-roast it, ferment the shredded cooked agave “mash,” distill once or twice, and water down with fresh spring water. Distilling tequila, conversely, requires blue agaves to be steamed in stainless steel ovens.
Corporate tequila companies are fully aware that the demand for mezcal has skyrocketed. As diners and drinkers began to take regional Mexican cuisine more seriously, a desire to learn more about Mexico’s native agave spirits followed suit. (The gluten-free trend didn’t hurt this development either, since all mezcal, including tequila, is made from an agave mash and not grain mash like whiskey or bourbon.)
Million-dollar marketing campaigns aimed at aligning tequila with the high life (looking at you, Don Julio) have overshadowed the fact that there is a bolder, smokier, 100% wild-agave spirit being distilled in tequila’s home state. On a much smaller scale, these same corporate behemoths are even offering tequila tours in places like Puerto Vallarta—despite the fact that the tequila region is a four-hour drive away from P.V. Raicilla, distilled nearby, is becoming somewhat of a rarity in its own territory.
Lechugilla agaves in the field. (Photo courtesy Javier Cabral)
The indie mezcal versus corporate tequila struggle is so fraught that even La Venenosa’s founder, Esteban Morales Garibi, is currently in a legal battle with Jose Cuervo. Cuervo recently launched a mezcal from Oaxaca into the Mexican market called 400 Conejos—the same name as Morales’ beloved alternative mezcal bar in Guadalajara.
“A la chingada con Cuervo,” he jokes (translation: “F**k Cuervo.”) “Cuervo tried to buy the name from us, but offered me a very disrespectful, ridiculous rate, so we are fighting because they still want to take the name away from us. Mezcal and agave spirits are part of the identity of Mexico.”
A handmade clay oven used to fire-roast agaves for raicilla. (Photo courtesy Javier Cabral)
The flavor of raicilla ultimately depends on several factors, from raicillero technique to soil type. But you can count on it being sweeter, more tropical fruit-forward, and more herbaceous than tequila or Oaxacan mezcal. Some notable L.A. mixologists have even compared the flavor to snorting coke—reminiscent of the smokey and mineral-y drip that collects in your throat. In Los Angeles, it is available only at Tacoteca and fetches $20 per shot. In New York, you can it find at places like Empellón Cocina and Gramercy Tavern.
Even Gilbert Marquez, the mezcal-specialist and consultant for virtually every noteworthy new Mexican restaurant in L.A. (Tacoteca, Mexicano, Frida) admits that some raicillas rank up there with the best Oaxacan mezcales. “All it needs is just enough advocates demanding it,” he says. As Mexico’s current counter-culture youth movement continues to seek out pre-European conquest drinks like pulque, the rise of raicilla may not be such a long shot after all.