The state of Jalisco is home to the town of Tequila and the eponymous spirit, but it also produces a unique and lesser-known distillate: raicilla. The liquor’s history dates back centuries, but it was only in June 2019 that it was officially recognized with a Denominación de Origen status. Before then, despite the fine examples available, raicilla was illegal and regarded as moonshine!
Raicilla’s closest relative is mezcal. For both spirits, the heart of the agave plant, the piña, is roasted before fermentation, often resulting in a smoky flavor. But mezcal cannot be distilled in raicilla’s home state of Jalisco, where the different agave species and terroirs give raicilla its own distinctive character. In addition, raicilla is often distilled just once, whereas mezcal is always distilled twice. Whether the raicilla comes from the coast (de la costa) or the mountains (de la sierra) also affects its flavor, because of the different agave species involved and because roasting techniques in the two locations often vary. (Tequila can also be distilled in Jalisco, but it comes only from the blue agave plant, the piña of which is steamed, not roasted.)
We regularly spotted two raicillas on hotel bar menus, Hacienda El Divisadero, from near the coast, and Duque Luciano, from the mountains. Tasting them side by side was illuminating. El Divisadero had the classic spicy-smoky paprika notes I associate with mezcal, mixed with an undertone reminiscent of old flowers or certain fresh cheeses. Duque Luciano, on the other hand, had a brighter aroma and more subtle dashes of smoke, with fruity and fresh flavors seasoned with pink peppercorn. Scotch drinkers would surely appreciate the former, whereas the latter might please fans of Irish whiskey or bourbon.