Raicilla: The ‘Misunderstood’ Mexican Spirit

September 23, 2021

Raicilla, pronounced as ‘RAY-SEE-ya’ is a distilled agave spirit (kind of Mezcal) produced in the western part of Jalisco state of Mexico. This drink (once illegal) is part of Mexican culture for over 300 years. The piñas of agave species namely Maximilliana (Lechuguilla), Americana, and Pata de mula (foot of the mule) are mainly used in its production. The agave for this alcohol is mainly grown in ‘de la coasta’ and ‘de la sierra’ regions of Jalisco where the terroir plays a significant role. Raicilla has an alcoholic content that varies from 35% to 45% ABV.

The climate, soil, type of yeast used (Mexicana, wild or cultivated), water, and the experience of the distiller contributes to the final character of Raicilla. In the year 2019, Raicilla got its ‘Denomination of Origin’ status permitting 16 regions of the state of Jalisco and 1 region in the state of Nayarit to produce the liquor legally.

The agaves grown in the above-mentioned areas only will be permitted in making Raicilla.

The story behind its name

This Mexican spirit was once referred to as ‘Mexican Moonshine’ as it was produced mainly underground by the distillers. The intention was to get rid of the heavy taxation levied on agave products by the Spanish officials. The claim raised by the Raicilla producers were that the beverage was produced from the root of the agave plant hence the name ‘raicilla’, meaning ‘little root.’ The liquor was made in small batches initially and was sold in plastic bottles to create the impression of a low-quality spirit. This is how the ‘little root’ spirit lost its identity and suffered humiliation. But things changed in 2008 when La Venenosa Company started the commercial production of Raicilla. It is this company that was the first to import and sell raicilla in the United States legally. The ‘Consejo Mexicano Promotor de la Raicilla’ is an association of experts that promotes raicilla.

Why is Raicilla ‘not a Mezcal’ legally?

Though Raicilla is very much similar to Mezcal, it is not legally permitted to be called ‘Mezcal’ as the state of Jalisco is falling outside the legal boundaries of the ‘Denomination of Origin’ of Mezcal.

Production of Raicilla

Once the agave plants have reached maturity, piñas (the heart of agave) are harvested and crushed, further taken to a taverna (raicilla distillery). The distillation process is carried out by maestro raicilleros (raicilla distillers) in a pot still. A traditional Asian style alembic still is also used by few raicilla makers.

Based on the methods of production the Mexican liquor is categorized as Raicilla, Artisanal Raicilla, and Ancestral Tradition Raicilla.

Raicilla-The piñas are cooked in a steam oven which is further crushed and the pulp is extracted and fermented in a stainless steel tank. The distillation happens in a column still.
Artisanal Raicilla-The cooked piñas are crushed using a shredder and the liquid is fermented using yeast. Clay pot still or pot still is used for distillation purpose.
Ancestral Tradition Raicilla-The process of roasting is done either in a pit or in a horno (brick oven). Once the piñas are roasted it is crushed using tahona (traditional stone wheel crushing process) or mazos (wooden mallets). Interestingly, the fermentation could be carried out in tree trunks, clay or brick tanks, holes made in soil and stone. Water is added and natural yeasts act upon it. The wash undergoes distillation in a clay pot still that works with firewood.

Types of Raicilla

There are four types of Raicilla namely Blanco (unaged), Joven (aged in oak barrels for less than a year), Reposado (aged in oak barrels for a period of 1 to 2 years) and Añejo/Extra aged (aged in oak barrels for more than 2 years).

Brands of Raicilla

Balam, La Venenosa, Las Perlas and Estancia.

The taste profile of Raicilla

Raicilla exhibits floral, citrus, herbal, and smoky notes based on its terroir. It can be served cold in grappa glassware or in old-fashioned glassware on a bed of ice. Palomita is the raicilla version of tequila based Paloma. Cranberry juice and Passion fruit juices are excellent mixers for Raicilla.




By Varghese Johnson
Varghese Johnson is the assistant professor at St Joseph’s Institute of Hotel Management & Catering Technology, Choondacherry, Palai-Kerala.
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Comment on this article

  • Kiran, Udupi

    Mon, Sep 27 2021

    Very good article detailing the history of the spirit. I had never heard of this spirit before. Thank you to the writer for an informative article.

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