An unplanned stop at a Raicilla distillery enlightens us as to Tequila’s origins and to the purists favored fermented agave drink.
While driving a side road to go check out a possible snorkeling beach, we passed by a rustic looking building advertising that it was a Raicilla/Mezcal distillery and that it had tours. On a whim, we pulled in and were greeted by Tony, a really nice guy who spends 6 months of the year in Mexico and the other 6 in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Tony was very knowledgable and gave us a tour of what turned out to be the bottling and distribution facility for a Raicilla co-op.
A quick history of Tequila: The people native to this area of Mexico (the state of Jalisco) used to harvest wild maguey agave plants in order to extract their delicious sugars.
In order to do this the leaves of the giant maguey were removed, leaving the huge heart of the plant, which was referred to as a piña due to its resemblance to a giant pineapple. A bunch of piñas would then be put onto a bed of coals and covered with leaves, a layer of woven mats, and finally dirt. They were cooked in this way for 48 hours, softening the piñas so that they could be mashed in order to extract the sugar.
When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they brought with them the knowledge and technology to make distilled spirits. They quickly realized that this sweet agave nectar would be great for distilling into liquor that they called Mezcal.
The Spaniards wanted this delicious new liquor all for themselves, so they made it illegal to distill mezcal outside of their facilities, furthermore, they only produced it for themselves and their troops. The natives however, quickly and easily learned the art of distilling and began producing their own illegal version called Raicilla.
Tequila arrived later when a proprietor saw the opportunity to mass produce the liquor using cultivated blue agave instead of the wild maguey variety. Tony was sure to make it clear that Raicilla is a far superior product for several reasons. First is that blue agave is fertilized when it is grown on plantations and picks up some flavors from the fertilizer. Secondly, the blue agave is cooked quickly in a metal tub rather than using the traditional method. The use of metal further imparts flavors and loses some of the natural smokiness achieved during the long slow traditional cooking method. Lastly, Tony explained that only recently, in the past few decades, the Mexican government has lifted the prohibition of Raicilla, and it is produced exclusively on small family owned ranches. As with Tequila, Raicilla can be aged in oak barrels, which is what distinguishes the difference between blanca and repasado. Repasado Raicilla is aged in a oak barrel for 6 months or more.
Due to the informative and interesting history that Tony orated, and possibly the free samplers that he poured us, we were convinced and bought a nice bottle of Raicilla repasado aged for 11 years in an oak barrel. It is quite delicious, and although it tastes similar to Tequila, no lime and salt are needed when consuming it. It is smooth and smokey and great for sipping on the beach.