Botanical and Cultural Adventures

Botanical and Cultural Adventures

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Raicilla, Vallarta's Spirits

Raicilla varieties of different ages and some flavored liqueur.
We are all familiar with Mexico's most famous spirits, tequila. The heart of tequila production and home of the town Tequila, the state of Jalisco is one of the few designated states included in the tequila region. Just like Champagne and Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan) which are regulated with restricted regions allowed to create a product with that name, tequila is very closely controlled.

All tequila must be made in the specified region and be made only with the blue tequila agave (so don't be too starstruck when your favorite tequila advertises "Made from 100% Blue Agave").
Raicilla agaves are green unlike the tequila agaves

Raicilla (rye-SEE-ya) is a small regional cousin of tequila. This lesser known drink is still mostly unknown to most tequila aficionados. Technically, both are types of mezcal.  All are made from the roasted 'heart' of an agave.  When the plant is mature and building up lots of sugars that are required for the very rapid and impressive development of their tall inflorescence, they are harvested by removing their leaves.  What remains is the "piña", so named because it looks like a very large pineapple (piña is pineapple in Spanish).

After the piñas are collected, they are traditionally roasted in a large pit in the ground. In the more modern (and much grander scale) tequila industry they are roasted in large stainless steel containers as they are faster and more efficient at the scale required for the massive industry. The pits are sometimes stone lined, but not always. Once the pit is loaded with the hot coals and piñas, it is buried to roast for several days. Much of the flavor seems to be attributed to this roasting process.
Piñas after being roasted

After the roasting, the piña is then crushed. Traditionally an animal like a burro is used to drive the grinding wheel that releases the sugary juices and and makes the pulp that is used to ferment to create the alcohol. Fancy producers like this (at left) have a system where the liquid is drained into a tank, but usually it is a much more simple basin where the pulp/slurry needs to be scooped and shoveled out.

Roasted raicilla agave cut into smaller chunks to chew
 If not crushed, the roasted piña can be sliced and either pressed to get the 'agave nectar' or chewed like sugarcane (but make sure you spit out the fibers!). One evening, while enjoying a great chicken soup I was treated to some of the farm's roasted agave.  When asking if I could taste their raicilla, I made the mistake of not specifying a 'little' taste...before I knew it, they grabbed a pint glass and already started pouring. It was almost half full before I could get them to stop!

After fermentation, the brewed slurry is distilled like all liquors.  Usually distilled more than once, both rudimentary and elaborate stills work equally well.  It is nice to see both methods used--and of course tasting all of the different methods!