The day started with a brutal hangover and a bumpy, nauseating drive to an agave plantation deep in the mountains outside the city of Mascota, a small village in the Mexican state of Jalisco.
From the highway we turned onto a gravel road of scorched red clay. After passing a tiny village of sun-bleached white adobe houses, we went off-road, driving through grassy fields and up onto the rocky hillsides. The jagged cliffs were covered with Mexican Blue Oak trees and wild agave plants whose alien-looking stalks stretched towards the sky.
I was making this trek for raicilla—a spirit that I knew barely anything about, but was already totally obsessed with. ——
The first time that I tried raicilla I had no idea what I had just tasted. I wasn’t a seasoned agave drinker. I had an idea of what mezcal was and had sampled quite a few bottlings of the Oaxacan spirit—but I definitely couldn’t tell you the difference between a tobala an espadin or tobaziche (it turns out that they’re all different species of the same genus of agave). It was summer and I was at Bar Bruno in Brooklyn watching the World Cup. On the back bar, I spied three bottles that I had never seen before. They had different colored labels, but the same insignia: a white snake wrapped in a circle—an ouroboros
. I pointed to one and ordered a shot. What turned out to be my first taste of raicilla went down my throat and lingered on my tongue; my brain exploded into a pile of goo. That first sip made me want to know everything there was to know about racilla and agave.
Raicilla and mezcal are one in the same, technically speaking. The only differences between the two spirits is where they are made and the agave from which they are distilled.
Mezcal is primarily produced in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, while raicilla is native to the state of Jalisco. Both spirits are distilled from the fermented heart of the agave plant, known as the piña, which is roasted in rock-lined pits in the ground to soften its tough exterior. While mezcal can be made from any agave plant native to Mexico (the name comes from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs and means “cooked-agave”), raicilla is traditionally only distilled from plants indigenous to the mountainous desertscape of Jalisco—most commonly the small, almost artichoke-esque agave maximiliana.
After the Spanish colonized Mexico, the new “landlords” heavily taxed local distilleries and mezcaleros. To avoid taxation, some mezcaleros outside of Oaxaca renamed their product, claiming it was moonshine, or raicilla, and hid their stills.
For years, raicilla could only be found at family gatherings and community events, but now, for the first time in history, raicilla is being bottled legally and distributed within Mexico and the United States. La Venenosa is currently the only company bringing the spirit across the border, and their label represents five distinctly different expressions, each from a different remote Jalisco village. The first bottle of raicilla that I tried was their Black Label, from master tabenero Don Ruben Peña. And now, a year after drinking his spirit, I was with the distiller, hungover, trundling through agave fields. ——
High in the hills outside of Mascota, our truck stopped when we reached a sloped pasture. There were several trucks parked in a clearing in front of us. A group of 10 to 15 Guadalajaran bartenders and taberneros (local distillers of raicilla) were waiting for us. We were there to learn about maximilliana agave, with a tabenero known simply as The Doctor as our guide.
The night before, The Doctor had treated us to several liters of his own personal raicilla, poured from unlabeled plastic bottles, with Squirt soda as a chaser. At one in the morning, I was one of the last men standing. After drinking my weight in raicilla, I had won the respect of The Doctor. Or, at least, that’s what I chose to believe as my Spanish is less than perfect and he didn’t speak a word of English. As a token of appreciation, The Doctor invited us to his ranch the next morning to show us his agave plantation.
We arrived at 8 a.m. at the Doctor’s agave plantation. I couldn’t survive even a minute without sunglasses and was sweating heavily. The Doctor, however, was smiling, freshly showered, in a woven, long-sleeve guayabera shirt, with a cocktail in hand and a cigarette dangling from his lips.
Staggering through the agave plantation with the scorching desert sun on my back, I felt that death was imminent. A local agronomist was discussing how bats were responsible for pollinating and spreading wild agave. Giant bugs were pestering me with their bites. There were hundreds of agave plants around me, with needle-like spines and a crimson flush at the edge of their leaves.
Everyone gathered around a plastic fold-up table in the shade for some refreshment: raicilla con Squirt over crushed ice. But I couldn’t handle another drink. I could barely handle staying upright.
By the time I arrived back in the village of Mascota, I was desperate for water and a full meal in the shade (air conditioning was the stuff of legend). The woman at the restaurant knew exactly what I needed. She served me a bowl of bone marrow broth with fresh hot chilies, a squeeze of lime, white onions and cilantro; it was a corpse reviver of sorts. After a mugful of the broth, an ice cold beer, and several swigs from a bottle of raicilla that I had stashed away in my bag, I stumbled to my hotel room and face-planted into the bed. ——
The crack of a firework made me realize that the night’s festivities had begun without me. I had fallen asleep with all of my clothes on and my boots barely untied.
Sitting in the dark, I rubbed my eyes. The sounds of a booming celebration surrounded the hotel. It felt like the entire village was partying. As I rose from the bed, I could feel the bass from the PA system rattle in my feet. I walked to the mirror, smoothed my hair and washed my face.
This was the the last day of the annual city-wide raicilla festival in Mascota, a three-day long celebration of raicilla and the producers who make the spirit. Taberneros had come from all corners of Jalisco to share their spirits with the community of Mascota and each other. To celebrate the end of the festival, taberneros had brought gallons of their raicilla for everyone.
Outside, whole families sat on the edge of the street, sharing plates of barbecued meat, beers and sodas. Taco carts had come in for the occasion, parking near the square. Across the street, men were waiting patiently to buy beer for their friends and neighbors at the bodega, passing 6-packs through the crowds.
One of the first things that I noticed was that everyone was immaculately groomed and dressed. Women wore bright colors and tied their long hair in braids. The men wore their best western shirts—freshly ironed and starched—with wide-brimmed cowboy hats.
As I was coveting one man’s golden snakeskin boots, a stranger handed me a cold can of Modelo Especial and patted me on the shoulder before leaving without a word, wandering back into the crowd. I cracked open the beer.
The crowd’s focus was on the street, where a mariachi band dressed in black velvet suits were playing a song to a cowboy on a horse. A square on the cobblestone street had been drawn in white chalk, and the cowboy pulled on the horse’s bridle as he rode it, coaxing the animal into moving to the beat of the tune. This, I later found out, was horse dancing.
The rules of a horse dancing competition are simple: If the dancing moves outside the square or “court,” the rider is disqualified. Judging is based on how the horse is controlled, its movements, and the respect between master and animal. People laughed and cheered as the cowboys made their horses leap and trot to the blaring brass band, the cowboys’ wildly colored, fringed gabardine western shirts bouncing as they danced.
Amazing as it was, though, the horse dancing competition was not the main event. After the best local cowboy was crowned victor and his horse was draped with flowers, the fiesta shifted its focus towards a creature that emerged from the darkness of the hill country: a donkey, with barrels filled with raicilla upon its back. ——
Master tabenero Don Ruben Peña and his donkey came to a stop in the middle of the central square of the village. Earlier in the day (most likely while I was passed out), Don Ruben and the other taberneros had filled the barrels with a potent mix of all of their raiciallas. Like an entire Pizza Hut buffet on one plate, the barrels were an amalgam of flavors and funkiness.
Waiting to fill their earthen mugs (copitas) with the clear, subtly smoky liquor, the thirsty festival-goers gathered around the donkey. I couldn’t remember the last time that I was this close to a donkey, or if I had ever touched one before. I walked up to the small, fuzzy creature and it stared up at me. It had cartoon-like, giant brown eyes, and looked like a stuffed animal come to life. When I reached my hand out towards him, he put his ears back and bowed his head. I rubbed his dusted, velvety muzzle and he put his head down more, enjoying the affection.
While I was bonding with the donkey, Don Ruben opened the taps on the barrels. Everyone reached their glasses towards the free-flowing booze. I walked to the donkey’s side and filled my cup and took a shot. The pungently earthy raicilla’s boozy heat sat heavy in my throat. The mixture of raicillas had a sharp, creamy acidity, with the taste of tropical fruits like mango, and a gin-like pine needle savoriness. I filled my cup again and took another shot.
A truck carrying two giant speakers pulled up, and someone cranked up the ranchera music, signaling that the next part of the fiesta was beginning. Like a Mexican pied piper, it led the party down the street. Several hundred people followed the truck, including the cowboys on horseback, drinking and singing, as the donkey, still carrying barrels of raicilla, trotted alongside.
On and on we walked, becoming more and more inebriated with every step, stopping occasionally to fill our cups with our burro bartender’s goods. The clear liquor spilled onto the streets as we tried to gather it in our small clay shot glasses. When everyone finally had a drink, the procession continued. We traveled around the central square, through the narrow, weathered streets of the village, and back to the square again. I followed, belting out the songs that came from the truck’s stereo the best that I could in broken Spanish.
When I was too tired to walk anymore, and the raicilla had worked its way to my head, I left the procession and headed towards a taco cart in the distance. I could smell the heavy perfume of barbecued fat.
There was a short woman in her late 50s, rotund and jovial, working the grill. She smiled at me as I approached. The meat smoking and simmering on the flat top grill was a combination of adobada (pork marinated in red chile, vinegar and oregano) and traditional carne asada. I ordered four tacos (two of each) with roasted whole green onions, frijoles negro, and a side of dried, oiled and salted de arbol chiles.
After filling my stomach, I sat on a plastic beach chair on the busted sidewalk. I watched stray dogs pick at scraps off the street. Suddenly, the white truck came around a corner, still blaring music, and, in its wake, the donkey emerged. I shuffled out of my chair after the beast, ready to lighten his load with a few more cups of raicilla.