Raicilla Is Tequila’s Funkier Cousin (and You Need to Try It)

Matthew Kelly / Supercall

Tequila was all the rage, then mezcal stole the show. But now, it’s raicilla’s turn in the spotlight. With three distinctly different brands exporting the agave spirit into the U.S., it’s officially time to get into raicilla.

Like its Oaxacan cousin, mezcal, raicilla is an ancient spirit distilled from pit-roasted, fermented agave piñas, the heart of the agave plant. Produced in the Mexican state of Jalisco, raicilla has a subtle smokiness, but is generally more pungently acidic, fruity and floral than either mezcal or tequila.

Even though raicilla has been produced for hundreds of years, it wasn’t until 2008 that the spirit was bottled and sold commercially in Mexico. La Venenosa was the first company to kick things off. Started as a passion project by Guadalajaran chef Esteban Morales, the goal was to distribute raicilla outside of the remote Mexican villages where it was made—and also convince people to drink it. Amongst most Mexicans, raicilla was viewed as hillbilly swill or moonshine. Morales not only changed that notion with La Venenosa, but he also won the respect and trust of five master tabaneros (raicilla distillers), each hailing from a different part of Jalisco where they produced their own unique styles of raicilla. Today, these tabaneros make La Venenosa’s flagship expressions.

After cultivating the brand within Mexico, Morales set his sights on the U.S. and, with the help of mezcal distributor Arik Torren, La Venenosa became the first company to legally import and sell raicilla in the United States. Now, five years later, there are two other companies following in Morales’s footsteps, with more likely to follow. Here are the best raicillas that you can buy stateside now, and what to look for next.

Balam Raicilla began importing raicilla into the U.S. in 2016. Their psychedelically vibrant, Mexican folk art-inspired label adorned with a fierce jaguar head (the brand’s name means jaguar in the Yucatec language) is both beautiful and easy to spot. The raicilla is made in the village of El Tuito from rhodacantha (aka yellow agave), a wild agave plant indigenous to the seaside cliffs. Balam is offered in two different expressions: joven and añejo. It’s currently available in three states—South Carolina, Tennessee and Illinois—with California, Texas, Wisconsin and New York on the way.

Balam Costa (Orange Label, Joven) $50
Double-distilled in a Filipino-style clay pot still by master tabanero Rosalio Rodriguez, Balam’s joven offering is the more rustic of the two labels. On the palate, the spirit has a bright, tangy acidity, with notes of orange oil, wet clay and gravel, and an herbal, almost metallic finish of thyme and green tea tannins. It’s perfect for mixing in herbal, citrus-forward cocktails like the Last Word; the boldly flavored spirit has enough character and depth to stand up to even powerfully herbaceous yellow Chartreuse.

Balam Madurado (Green Label, Añejo) $70
With a creamy, savory depth, Balam’s añejo raicilla is a completely different animal than its more pungently herbal sister spirit. Like the joven, the añejo is fermented in open-air, wood containers with wild yeast and double-distilled in a Filipino-style clay pot still. What differentiates the two is that the añejo is distilled by master tabanero Ildegardo Dominguez and aged for up to three years underground in glass carboys. This aging process allows the spirit to mellow and soften, with the sharp acids becoming more lactic. It’s round and rich, with a touch of cheesy funk, wet stone, white pepper heat and savory notes of green olives. It’s a spirit to savor, and should be sipped neat.

Founded in the mountain village of Mascota by Australian ex-pat Rio Chenery, La Estancia began importing raicilla into the U.S. in 2015. Legend has it that Chenery left his adopted city of New York City for the highlands of Jalisco with the goal of producing his grandfather’s favorite spirit: raicilla. With a simple, elegantly rustic label, La Estancia is currently only available in 375-ml bottles—but don’t worry, the liquid inside is as delicious as the bottles are cute. Unfortunately, the spirit is currently available only in New York, but California, D.C., Massachusetts and Illinois are on the horizon.

Estancia Raicilla (375ml) $40
Fermented and distilled from maximiliana agave, La Estancia’s clean, perfumey flavor comes from the unique way in which it is fermented and distilled. Unlike most raicillas, which are fire-roasted in the ground, La Estancia roasts their agave piñas in an adobe oven. Fermented with wild, airborne yeast in wooden, open containers, it’s double-distilled in a copper alembic still for a bright, almost gin-like flavor. It’s surprisingly light, floral and perfumey, with an undercurrent of vegetal flavors from the agave. Unlike the other raicillas that we’ve tasted, there’s no cheese curd creaminess or an overwhelming rustic funk on the nose or palate. Delectable in citrus-forward cocktails and tropical drinks, La Estancia also is extremely quaffable straight.

Created by chef Esteban Morales, La Venenosa is the brand that started it all. From one single expression—Sierra de Jalisco from Mascota—Morales’s line has grown to include raicillas from five different master tabaneros, spanning the entire state of Jalisco. Each of La Venenosa’s five current expressions are available for retail nationwide and online.

La Venenosa Sierra de Jalisco Raicilla (Black Label) $60
Produced by master tabenero Don Ruben Peña in the mountain village of Mascota, this was the first spirit to be produced under the Venenosa label. It’s made with cultivated maximiliana agave, which is roasted in clay, wood-fired ovens and distilled on an alembic, Filipino-style still after fermenting in open air containers with wild, indigenous yeast. The most acidic bottling in the Venenosa line, it’s bright with both lemon-lime tartness and lactic acid. Behind the acidity lies bold fruit flavors, with notes of mango, overripe banana and passionfruit. It finishes with vegetal notes from the agave and hints of wet stone and tarragon.

La Venenosa Costa de Jalisco Raicilla (Green Label) $85
This expression from master tabenero Don Alberto Hernandez comes from the remote coastal village of El Tuito, deep in the Cabo Corrientes region of Jalisco. It’s made with rhodacantha agave (aka yellow agave), a wild agave indigenous to the region. Hernandez roasts the agave, then ferments the juice in open-air wooden containers and distills the spirit on a still made from the trunk of a Higuera Blanca tree. Upon sipping, you can taste the seaside air, the vegetal savoriness of the agave and the cedary smoke of the tree. This is one of the most primal, distinctly terroir driven spirits we’ve ever tasted. As it opens up, notes of saline mix with queso fresco funk, sagebrush, jalapeno, fresh truffles and wildflowers. On the finish, the spirit leaves an oily weight in your mouth and flavors of campfire smoke on your tongue.

La Venenosa Sur de Jalisco Raicilla (Red Label) $95
Out of all the Venenosa spirits, the Sur De Jalisco spirit is the most traditional tasting and mezcal-like. Produced by second generation master tabenero Arturo Campos, the Sur raicilla is made from 100% angustifolia agave (known locally as lineño agave). It’s made in the village of Zapotitlan de Vadillo, a town near the very active Colima volcano. Floral and spicy on the palate, it has notes of sugar cookies, allspice, clove, white pepper and wet stone, with a long, tannic finish that has hints of incense smoke and burnt embers.

La Venenosa Sierra del Tigre Raicilla (Orange Label) $130
The Orange Label La Venenosa from master tabenero Don Luis Contreras is unlike any spirit that you will ever taste. It is made exclusively from wild, foraged inaequidens agave, which Contreras pit-roasts and ferments in open-air concrete tubs built into the ground. Distilled in sun-dried clay stills built into the earth—fueled by wood fires—the spirit is raw, unrefined and extremely limited in quantity (Contreras only makes about 700 liters a year). Its strange amalgam of flavors range from sweet and fruity to sour lime, to savory umami, rounding off with a pungently creamy finish. Notes include custard, green papaya, soursop, over-ripe mango and pine, with heavy wafts of earthen funk and a meatiness akin to French wash-rind cheeses. Even though it’s unusual and more likely to please more adventurous agave drinkers, this spirit is delectable sipped straight with food.

La Venenosa Puntas Raicilla (Blue Label) $200
This is the crown jewel in the La Venenosa line. It’s made with the puntas, a section of the still run between the heads and the hearts, which is highly prized amongst tabaneros for its rich ester content and high alcohol. Bottled at a whopping 63% ABV (126 proof) this raicilla is undiluted and unfiltered. The spirit goes straight from the still to glass carboys to bottles. Produced by Gerardo Peña (aka El Lobo, Don Ruben Peña’s cousin), with cultivated agave maximiliana in the village of Jacales, it is fermented in an open air oak vat and double distilled in a stainless alembic style still. Deceptively smooth, the spirit lacks any of the alcoholic heat that you would expect from such a high proof. With a vegetal, almost gin-like herbaceousness, it has notes of fresh cut grass, juniper berry, jasmine and honeysuckle, with a touch of lime oil freshness and tropical fruits. The finish is long and velvety with bursts of orange creamsicle, custard, and white pepper. It is one of the most impressive agave spirits we’ve ever tasted.

La Venenosa Étnica

In social media-saturated 2017, it’s hard to imagine that there are still people living completely off the grid. And yet, indigenous Mexican cultures like the Huichol people and Tepehuán people have not only managed to keep their traditions intact, they have also managed to remain (almost) completely isolated from modern-day Mexico.

One of these people's’ only connections to the outside world is La Venenosa founder, Esteban Morales, whose upcoming Étnica line—made up of two small batch bottlings—is unlike anything currently being produced. The line will include Tepe, made by the Tepehuán people of Durango, and Tuchi, made by Huichol people of Jalisco. Tasting these heritage spirits—made with the same recipes and techniques used for hundreds of years—is like stepping into an agave-fueled time machine. According to Morales, the bottlings will showcase the “beautiful diversity of spirits within Mexico,” and will finally give credit to those responsible for such a rich tradition of agave spirits.

Although La Venenosa Étnica is currently in production (you can see photos on their Instagram), the spirits will be available in the United States later this year.

La Venenosa Étnica Tuchi
Fermented from a combination of wild masparillo and mai agave with naturally occurring, airborne yeast, this spirit is distilled on a handmade clay, Filipino-style still. It’s the first time in nearly 20 years since the Huichol village has produced tuchi, and the villagers couldn’t be more excited about reviving their heritage spirit.

La Venenosa Étnica Tepe
Hailing from the Mexican state of Durango, tepe is distilled from fermented wild castilla agave. Like tuchi, tepe is fermented with naturally occurring, airborne yeast, and distilled on a clay Filipino-style still.