Raicilla Basics and TERMS
Raicilla is the name for certain regional mezcales of western Jalisco. Two different regions of Jalisco – the western sierra and the coast range – produce raicilla with distinct types of agave and production methods. Sierra raicilla is produced primarily in and around the municipalities of Mascota and San Sebastián del Oeste. Here, we focus more on the coastal raicillas from the municipality of Cabo Corrientes. Raicilla culture in many ways resembles that of tequila 300 years ago.
Denomination of Origin for Raicilla
Raicilla was granted Denomination of Origen status within Mexico in 2019. The DO is comprised of the municipalities of Atengo, Chiquilistlán, Juchitlán, Tecolotlán, Tenamaxtlán, Puerto Vallarta, Cabo Corrientes, Tomatlán, Atenguillo, Ayutla, Cuautla, Guachinango, Mascota, Mixtlán, San Sebastián del Oeste, and Talpa de Allende in Jalisco, as well as Bahía de Banderas in Nayarit state.
It should be noted that the raicilla DO is quite new, is not yet supported by any Norma Oficial Mexicana (NOM), nor any regulatory agency. What follows are the categories and classes proposed in the declaration of protection for the raicilla DO. The DO is controversial, and these issues are very much contested and in flux. All raicilla is 100% agave.
Types of Raicilla
The DO breaks all raicilla into two geographical types – coastal raicilla (raicilla de la costa) made primarily from Agave angustifolia and A. rhodacantha, and mountain raicilla (raicilla de la Sierra) made primarily from Agave maximiliana Baker, and A. inaequidens. These types are each divided into categories and classes.
Apparently adapted from the category of so-called “industrial” mezcal, this category allows for cooking the agave in autoclaves, extraction with roller mills, fermentation in stainless-steel, and distilling in a stainless-steel columns.
The use of autoclaves and column stills is prohibited. Agave must be cooked in pit or above-ground ovens with firewood or gas. Mechanical shredders are allowed. Pot distillation in stills no larger than 500 liters is mandated. Stills can be stainless steel.
“Ancestral Tradition” Raicilla
Requires cooking in pit or above-ground ovens, milling with mallets or stone wheel, and distillation in wood-fired clay-and-wood pot stills. Agave fiber must be included in both fermentation and (first) distillation.
“Joven Blanco” or Plata
Unaged and unadulterated, the vast majority of raicilla falls into this class.
Envejecida o Madurada en Vidrio
“Aged or matured in glass” – raicilla stored in glass for over twelve months, underground or somewhere with minimal variation in light, temperature, and humidity. Storing in glass (especially buried underground) is a traditional practice that softens the raicilla over time, without lowering the alcohol content.
Reposada or Oro
Mezcal “rested” in a wood vessel of any type or size, for between two and twelve months.
Raicilla aged in any type wooden vessel of of any type or size for more than twelve months.
Flavored or infused raicilla.
“Distilled with” – a pechuga process, in which fruit, meat, or other ingredients are present in the still during a distillation. Only permitted in the artisanal and “ancestral tradition” categories.
Raicilla production – this description is focused on artisanal and ancestral racilla of the coastal region.
Traditional raicilleros call agaves mezcales. To avoid confusion, we’ll use “agave” here. Agave is generally semi-wild or cultivated. Truly wild agave is quite scarce now in the raicilla regions. Semi-wild agaves are planted (from seed or hijuelo) and left to fend for themselves until they are harvested years later. The coastal region features several sub-varietals of A. angustifolia and A. rhodacantha. In the sierra, A. maximiliana and A. inaequidens predominate. Maturation periods vary, averaging around eight years. The raicilla Norm specifies that mature agave must be used. These agaves are generally harvested with machetes.
On the coast, most raicilleros cook the agave in an earthen or stone-lined underground pit. In the sierra, above-ground clay ovens are common. The latter are similar to huge pizza ovens, heated by burning wood right in the oven. The coastal ovens are like those in Oaxaca. A bonfire is built at the base of the pit, and after the fire dies down, stones are piled on the red-hot embers. These stones are themselves covered with wet agave fiber. The pit is filled with agave, which is also piled several feet above ground level. The mound is covered with straw mats or tarps, and then buried in earth. The heat radiating from the stones cooks the agave over the course of several days.
Once the cooked agave has been removed from the oven, cooled, and sorted, it must be crushed. Most raicilleros macerate by hand with machetes and wooden mallets. Mechanical shredders are common, and the stone wheel tahona, less so. When the agave has been completely pulverized into fiber and wet pulp, it is ready for fermentation.
The crushed agave will ferment naturally, with the addition of water. Fermentation generally takes one to four weeks, depending on factors like sugar content, temperature, altitude, frequency of fermentation in that taverna, and proximity to livestock. The use of commercial or even proprietary yeasts is almost unknown. Most raicilla is fermented by the ambient yeasts and microbes endemic to that taverna. Due to poverty in the coastal region, food-grade plastic water cisterns are commonly used for fermentation. Vats may also be made of wood, stone, concrete and tile. A traditional raicillero will watch, listen to, smell, touch, and taste the fermenting mash more frequently as the sugar content drops and alcohol rises. The maestro’s five senses are the instruments used to determine when fermentation is complete.
The fermented agave—juice, fiber, and all—is now loaded into a still. Coastal stills are of the “Filipino” type, comprised of a wood-fire metal or clay pot, a hollow tree-trunk chamber, and a copper condenser. Evaporation and condensation take place within the wooden chamber. Double distillation is the norm. In the sierra, single distillation in metal alembics is common.
Amarillo: Literally “yellow.” Common name for A. rhodacantha used for coastal raicilla.
Bagazo: Agave fiber left over after milling, fermentation, and distillation. It may be used to insulate the hot rocks of the pit oven, and to seal joints on stills. Many rural people say “gabazo” instead.
Bonete: The type of tree whose hollow trunk is used as the evaporation and condensation chamber in coastal “Filipino”-style stills.
Canoa: Literally “canoe.” A hollow tree trunk in which cooked agave is mashed with mallets. Larger canoas may also be used for fermenting cooked agave.
Capón: Agave whose flower stalk (quiote) has been severed (capado). Agave capón is prized for its high sugar content and strong flavor.
Cenizo: Literally “ashy.” Common name for one of several varietals of A. angustifolia used for coastal raicilla.
Chico aguiar: Common name for one of several varietals of A. angustifolia used for coastal raicilla.
Colas: “Tails” of distillation. Low in ethanol and high in methanol, they are commonly used to adjust the final alcohol content of raicilla.
Común: Liquid condensed from the first distillation of agave juice. When re-distilled, it becomes raicilla. See also “simple” and “ordinario.”
Cuastecomate: The gourd-like fruit used to make jícaras. Also commonly infused into raicilla.
Cuernito: Literally “little horn.” A hollow cow horn used to measure, taste, and drink raicilla.
Denomination of Origin (DO): Also known as “Appellation of Origin.” Status defining a product as exclusive to a particular country. The Denomination of Origin for Raicilla (DOR) is still in flux, as of 2019.
“Filipino” still: A simple still in which evaporation and distillation happen in a single chamber. So-called because of the possibility that the technology was introduced to Mexico by Filipinos in the sixteenth century. In the coastal region, these are generally made of copper and wood.
Hijuelo: Rhizomes that grow from some agave varietals. Clones of the parent plant, they are pulled up and re-planted in the spring.
Ixtle: Agave fiber.
Jícara: A gourd-like fruit cask used to measure, taste, and drink raicilla.
Lechuguilla: Common name for A. maximiliana used for sierra raicilla.
Mazo: Large wooden mallet used for hand-mashing cooked agave in ancestral processes.
Mezcal raicillero: Raicilleros typically call agaves by their older names of “mezcales.” A mezcal raicillero is any agave varietal used to make raicilla.
Ordinario: Liquid condensed from the first distillation of agave juice. When re-distilled, it becomes raicilla. See also “común” and “simple.”
Penca: Spiky leaf of the agave.
Pencudo: Literally “spiky.” Common name for one of several varietals of A. angustifolia used for coastal raicilla.
Perlas: “Pearls” – the bubbles that form on the surface of mezcal between approximately 45% and 55% alcohol by volume. A point of pride and mark of authenticity for many raicilleros.
Piña: “Pineapple” – common name for the agave stem that is harvested and cooked in raicilla production.
Puntas: “Points” or heads of distillation. Flavorful and high in alcohol, they are commonly used to adjust the final alcohol content of raicilla. They are sometimes consumed on their own.
Quiote: The inflorescence (flower stalk) that some agaves grow upon reaching maturity.
Simple: Liquid condensed from the first distillation of agave juice. When re-distilled, it becomes raicilla. See also “común” and “ordinario.”
Taverna: A traditional raicilla distillery.
Verde: Literally “green.” Common name for one of several varietals of A. angustifolia used for coastal raicilla.