By Chris Simmons
As I alternate back and forth from gas pedal to brake, navigating the narrow switchback road, I can’t help but glimpse the changing terrain around us. We’re leaving the flatter plains of central Jalisco and ascending into the mountains where the world seems much greener than where we’d just recently been. We’re on our way to a small town called Mascota in the mountains of the northwestern part of the state, a few hours’ drive from either Guadalajara or Puerto Vallarta. It’s early December, 2017, and the town is about to throw its 10th annual Raicilla festival. Each year, the festival has grown in size, scope and attendance with travelers coming this year from as far away as New York City and even Europe. Even so, it’s still a small festival with just a few hundred attendees. As we pull in, we’re greeted with the familiar sights of small-town Mexico: the town square, cowboys passing on horseback and the local church bells announcing the time. Like many villages and small towns, Mascota has its own identity and its inhabitants are proud. Officially designated a “Pueblo Magico”, or magical town by Mexico’s Tourism Secretary, it holds up to its billing. Lined with beautiful streets and a friendly people, Mascota is also the center of Raicilla country. Not to worry though. If you’re like most people outside of this area, you may not be all that familiar with raicilla (pronounced: rye-see-ya). So let’s dig in.
Raicilla is essentially a mezcal from Jalisco; but in order to unpack why it’s not called a mezcal, we need to first focus on Denominations of Origin (DO). Dating back to the 1930’s in Europe, they are government protected designations of a product originating from a specific location. One of the most well-known Appellations of Origin (as they’re called in France) is Champagne and the sparkling wine from that region. In other words, you’ll never find a bottle of sparkling wine called Champagne from anywhere else in the world; as the name is protected by law and it may only be produced in the Champagne region. Tequila and mezcal have DO as well. In order for an agave spirit to bear the name Tequila, it must be from Blue Weber agave grown in one of five states within Mexico. For mezcal, there are several types of agave that can be used, but they must be grown in one of nine states. This brings us to raicilla. Although it may be produced from similar types of agave as mezcal, such as the agave maximiliana, Jalisco is not one of the nine states within the DO for producing mezcal. Therefore, raicilla is its own thing; not Tequila, not mezcal-but raicilla from Jalisco.
How then does raicilla compare to other Mexican spirits? As with mezcal, raicilla has a wide-ranging profile as a result of different agave, yeasts and varying terroir. Many of the maximiliana based offerings, like Del Ciervo, are soft, floral and easily approachable. Others are very unique and distinctive, like La Venonosa’s Sierra del Tigre, produced from agave inaequidens. It has a nose of funky cheese, tropical fruit and white pepper. Its distinctive palate delivers a unique experience, as your first sip will undoubtedly leave you wondering how a spirit can be loaded with so much interesting complexity. And that in itself, is the difference with raicilla. It speaks to the terroir, the location and the people that produce it. It’s as unique as the furthest outlying mezcal, yet made right in Jalisco. It shines a spotlight on the agave as well as the intricate methods of production. So while raicilla does not yet have government protection, there are many people working diligently behind the scenes helping move it toward that protected class. We can only hope it will be the next Mexican spirit to be recognized with its own DO. Then, like a certain small town in the mountains of Jalisco, raicilla will officially have its own unique identity.