Raicilla: The powerful drink of the Jalisco hills

21/05/2020

Raicilla is a strong drink that could pass for a cousin to mescal and tequila. Its preparation is handmade and originated in the west of Jalisco. It began to be produced in 1600 at the same time as the mining boom in the area and its popularity is increasing.

Photograph courtesy of the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property (IMPI) showing several bottles containing raicilla, a handcrafted distillate whose origins date back to colonial times.
Photograph courtesy of the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property (IMPI) showing several bottles containing raicilla, a handcrafted distillate whose origins date back to colonial times.

To write about raicilla is to refer to the highlands of Jalisco. It is necessary to walk through the hills covered with oaks, pines, oaks, and pinewoods, and to find under their shadows and in the ravines, the plant from which this prodigious drink is obtained that pleases the palate of those who consume it and which they call "raicilla", a name that seems to refer more to a concoction made from roots, than to an intoxicating drink.

The area of origin of raicilla is in the west of Jalisco and includes the municipalities of Atenguillo, Cuautla, Guachinango, Mascota, San Sebastian del Oeste, Mixtlan and Talpa de Allende. There is also an admitted zone that includes the municipalities of Atengo, Ayutla, Cabo Corrientes, Chiquilistlán, Juchitlán, Puerto Vallarta, Tecolotlán, Tenamaxtlán and Tomatlán.

The origins of the raicilla go back to colonial times. The region from which it emerged coincides fully with the serpentine gold and silver vein mining area that stood out in its production during that historical period. Examples include the Real de San Sebastián, the Real de la Resurrección, and the Real de la Purificación y Minas de Guachinango, the latter only surpassed by Zacatecas in those years when these areas were called Nueva Galicia.

The idea that it was the mining workers, mostly indigenous, who first produced raicilla is not remote. There is also a lot of truth in the claim that it was the miners themselves who chose to call it "raicilla" in order not to pay the tax on alcoholic beverages levied by the Royal Court of Guadalajara. If this happened, then everything suggests that their initial production was clandestine. What is certain is that raicilla was born mestizo: the western mountains of Jalisco gave the agaves and the conquistadors brought the stills to distill it, since, before the Spanish contact, the intoxicating drinks they drank here were the product of fermentation.

The plant from which the raicilla is made is the maguey Agave inaequidens Baker and Agave maximiliana Baker with its varieties and subspecies, among others, Agave rhodacantha and Agave angustifolia. In the municipalities where it is found in the wild, the inhabitants simply call it "lechuguilla".

The "raicilleros" are the men who search the hills for the plants that are in their maturity. Once located, they cut the thorny leaves with a "coa", a rounded cutting instrument, until only the "piñas" or "heads" of the plant are left, which weigh up to 25 kilograms each. They are then taken to the "tavern", which is the place where the process takes place. The "pineapples" are cut into pieces and introduced into a brick oven, previously heated with wood. They are cooked for more than 48 hours and then they are ground in a wooden tray until they become juice. The bartender pours this liquid into 100-liter wooden barrels with a copper bottom, where it is left to ferment for six to twelve days thanks to the plant's natural yeasts. It is then taken to the distiller, better known as the "Filipino distiller", until the final product is obtained, which is the raicilla. The distillation process takes approximately eight hours. Its elaboration is, to date, a handmade product.

The production of raicilla has been on a smaller scale, compared to other drinks, such as tequila or mezcal. However, its demand has increased in recent years because it has been promoted at various events and in the media. The same producers and tavern workers are the ones who spread and keep alive the tradition of raicilla. They have organized themselves into cooperatives and have created the Mexican Council for the Promotion of Raicilla. They have already applied to the authorities for the "Denomination of Origin". For the time being, they have already obtained the legal figure of "Collective Mark" for the protection of the drink, a figure that is found in the Laws and Regulations of the IMPI (Mexican Institute of Industrial Property) in which the norm for raicilla is established. In San Sebastian del Oeste, Pueblo Mágico, a cultural festival dedicated to raicilla is organized every year during the first week of April and in Mascota during the second week of December.

It was originally a local drink. Mine workers drank it at the mine shafts, to give themselves the courage to enter or go down into the dark tunnels, always full of dangers. Later, it was the cause of joy in the festivities and revelry that were organized in the ranches and towns; it has also been a faithful companion in the hard work in the fields, the sowing, the harvesting; of painful moments and of love break-ups, as well as the result of lawsuits and many other misdeeds.

Currently its consumption is increasing and it is catalogued as a quality drink, original, exotic, refined elixir, and as the new drink of Jalisco.

It is also a totally organic, natural, and handmade drink. Its flavor is strong and vigorous; its golden color and aroma of green leaves, reminds of the sunny lands of the Jalisco mountains. Jorge Antonio Dueñas Peña, great promoter of this drink and chronicler of the Magic Town of San Sebastian del Oeste, points out that many myths have been invented about raicilla. He recommends leaving aside all those fictions and better enjoy raicilla with the alcoholic strength of your preference -35% to 45%- but always with a pleasant company at your side.


Author Dr. Felipe de Jesús Arreola Sedano: "Native of Guachinango, Jalisco. Since 1986 he is the Official Chronicler of Guachinango. Doctor in Education by the Universidad Pedagógica Nacional. He has published:"Dibujos Históricos de Guachinango", "Historia de Guachinango" and "Guachinango mi Municipio". At the moment he is School Supervisor of the Zone No. 69 and Director of Culture of Guachinango". 

Article written at the request of the Jalisco Ministry of Culture