Tequila and mezcal lovers, there's a new spirit that you need to try. Raicilla is a sort of proto-tequila, an agave-based liquor from Jalisco (home of tequila) that pre-dates Spanish settlement in Mexico. For many, many years it was thought of as Mexican moonshine. It wasn’t until recently that producers actually started branding their bottles and marketing them. And it wasn’t until last year that any could be found in the U.S. Bartenders have noticed its virtues, and raicilla is primed to become the next unfamiliar word to stump your less-informed friends as they browse the cocktail list.
To make raicilla (pronounced rye-see-ya), distillers roast agave, then crush, ferment and distill it. Sound like tequila? There’s one very big difference. Raicilla can be made with any varietal of agave, while tequila can only be made with the blue variety. Different agaves mean flavors unlike any tequila or mezcal.
Right now just one company sells raicilla in the states. La Venenosa makes four different bottlings, each with a different agave varietal and each with a drastically different flavor profile. Bartender Jason Eisner has every one on his list at L.A.’s Gracias Madre. “If you taste each one, they are so distinctive you might not think you were drinking the same spirit,” he says. Eisner loves the spirit not only for the cool and unique flavors it has when drunk on its own, but also how each type of raicilla transforms with food—specific foods. For example, when paired with pickles, La Venenosa Costa (also known as the Green Label), which is made from Rhodacantha agave, changes from tasting herbaceous and medicinal to tasting entirely like cedar wood. Right now, Eisner is showing off that pairing by serving the Green Label with homemade, escabeche-style pickles. As time goes on, he’ll feature each of La Venenosa’s labels with a different pairing that totally alters each bottling’s flavors.
But raicilla isn’t just for sipping. Its unique, vegetal, herbaceous, just slightly smoky flavors make it a wonderful base for complex cocktails. At Neta in New York, beverage director Cole Schaffer is using the Green Label in two ultra creative drinks. The Amai Doku #1 is made with the raicilla, elderflower liqueur and house-made cherry-tonka bitters. Stirred and served over a massive geodesic dome of ice, it tastes like kissing someone who just smoked a cigar while eating a cherry. Unlike mezcal, raicilla’s smokiness doesn’t overpower the drink—it haunts it, which makes it perfect for both stirred, darker drinks like the Amai Doku #1 and brighter, more acidic drinks like the Amai Doku #2. The second incarnation of the cocktail is made with a kumquat shrub, soju, grapefruit juice and sparkling water. It tastes like a cherry blossom with a rebellious, funky streak.
Will raicilla be the next mezcal? Probably not. It’s too hard to pin down and adopt as a go-to spirit. But it could be the next Chartreuse or Fernet—something to obsess over, to end the night with, to prove you're in the know. Right now, though, it’s something distinctive and new to cross off your liquor bucket list.