The Warren Column: A Twist on Mezcal

17 March, 2016

Jan Warren Recalls his First Taste of Raicilla and Reveals the Secrets of its Production

I CAN STILL REMEMBER sitting on a beach in Oaxaca 11 or 12 years ago. An old man carrying a stained canvas shoulder bag walked up to me: “Señor. Quiere mezcal?” I said yes and he pulled out a repurposed Coca-Cola bottle with a cork jammed in its mouth. The liquid inside was clear and looked slightly heavy and viscous. I pulled the cork and tasted it. My first taste of mezcal was spicy, citrusy, smoky and had a high-proof punch that alcoholic me loved and needed. Fast forward a few years and I am working the bar at a Manhattan restaurant and Arik Torren walks in pushing Fidencio, his mezcal  and one of the first quality brands to hit the States. His product took me right back to small dusty towns and empty Pacific beaches. Now he is importing excellent raicilla.

That first taste of raicilla filled me with the same wonder and surprise that mezcal had. Wonderfully funky, wonderfully varied, and wonderfully strange. Arik has found another gem in his line of raicillas and has wasted no time getting it to the States. Raicilla is mezcal made in the state of Jalisco, further north and west than Oaxaca. Like Oaxaca, Jalisco is home to an astonishing variety of agave species. The Venenosa line utilises at least four distinct species, all distilled in different and often strange equipment, and demonstrates four very different flavour profiles. From dry, bitter and herbal to cheese, chocolate, and rich, ripe fruit – there is something for everyone here.

Raicilla was first distilled in the early 17th century, when the Spanish brought distillation to the New World (though there are those who contend the native population was already distilling), and was the preferred drink of the hard-living miners who worked in the Jaliscan Sierra Madre. Much like its cousin, tequila, raicilla will show some terroir, with highland or mountain raicillas showing flavours of citrus, wood, and herb, and the coastal or lowland raicillas containing hints of fruit, minerals, and pepper. Like mezcal and absinthe, there are those that insist raicilla has hallucinogenic properties, and that it is made from a plant related to peyote. Rumours like this add mystery and draw interest to spirits, and that isn’t bad, but the reality is that raicilla is simply a mezcal with some differing production methods.

Production starts out as basically a clone of tequila or mezcal, with jimadores (men who cut the agave plants) using coas (basically bladed shovels) to remove the sharp leaves, leaving a core that closely resembles a pineapple, which is, unsurprisingly, called a ‘piña’. These piñas are cooked in a wood-fired oven for at least 24 hours then hacked into pieces and beaten into a pulpy liquid with wooden mallets.

Natural yeast is used to ferment the liquid in large wooden vats. Fermentation takes anywhere from six to 10 days depending on the local temperature and the size of the batch.

The stills used are incredible, sometimes made from ceramics, sometimes wood with a copper bottom. Many of them are called ‘Filipino’, which might lend some credence to the theory that distillation was introduced to western Mexico by Filipino sailors on Spanish galleons landing in Colima and Jalisco, who might have made a sort of coconut brandy or palm liquor.

These stills utilise local materials and were cheap and easy to make. Their use spread to the native population, who took it into the interior and away from the coastal palms, necessitating a switch from palm wine to the long-consumed pulque as distillation base. Let’s all thank the god  Quetzalcoatl that they did.

If you get a chance, or see it in your local liquor store, get some raicilla. You won’t regret it.

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