Botanical and Cultural Adventures

Botanical and Cultural Adventures

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mescal, Raicilla, and Tequila

Much like tasting the wonderful variety of great foods in the different regions of Mexico, it is necessary (at least for me!) to sample the different mescals throughout the country. Mescals are the distilled spirits produced from the agave plant. The most famous (and well marketed) mescal is tequila.

Tequila is a class of mescal that is essentially a regulated and trademarked regional production much like Champagne is for sparkling wine and Camembert, Stilton, and Parmesan for cheeses. Tequila must be grown and produced in specific parts of Mexico and use 100% blue agave (Agave tequiliana). I can’t help but chuckle when they put “100% Bue Agave” prominently on their label as if it is a great badge that no other tequila maker can say.

Tequila production is centered in the state of Jalisco, especially the highland area around Guadalajara and the town of Tequila (surprise!).There is a little sibling mescal that is also from Jalisco—raicilla. Raicilla (“rye-SEE-ya”) is made from a different agave and seems to be particularly centered just south of Puerto Vallarta. People generally consider it‘moonshine’ as it is not regulated and taxed like the popular tequila. It is usually produced simply for local consumption so it is often distributed in re-used tequila bottles or even in 2 liter plastic pop bottles! There is also a regional (or more properly, town-specific) version produced up in the state of Sonora called Bacanora.

The heart of mescal production is in the state of Oaxaca. There you will find a wide range of quality.  As like the raicilla and Bacanora, there are people who produce their own for their family and friends' consumption all the way up to large producers for the export market. And no, not all mescal has a worm in it! But yes, some do.  Much like the raicilla and tequila, you can get a range of liquor flavors. Some of my favorite for the novelty (although not particularly tasty) are some of the herb infused versions that are considered health tonics.  Maybe the flavor will grow on me...

An amusingly consistent thing that I have noticed when tasting a raicilla (as well as any tequila or mescal) is that you will inevitably be told how pure and wonderful their product is: “Made only of natural ingredients”. Sometimes the people will only subtly (but more often than not, overtly) cast aspersions on anyone else’s raicilla. Tequila salesmen and women will absolutely always say that raicilla is moonshine and either isn’t distilled properly or is stretched out with other chemicals. Brilliant marketing and sales tacticuntil you hear it for the 10th time! Then it just becomes fun. For more on the process of mescal and raicilla process, take a look at this article.