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.