Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico – The stories about El Tuito’s local “moonshine” have existed for ages including its shadowy history of being illegally produced in remote backwoods areas and sold in unlabeled plastic soda bottles to those who knew where to find it.
All that is slowly changing as production is now legal and local distillers are getting better at their craft. This moonshine, known as “raicilla,” which means “little root,” can now be found sold in artistic glass bottles in much of Mexico and some states in the US.
It seems the production of raicilla began over 400 years ago among the indigenous communities living in the state of Jalisco as this is where the most popular raicilla agaves, usually Maximiliana or Lechuguilla, grow. Both the coastal towns of Cabo Corrientes and the mountainous villages of the Sierra Madre Occidental grow these agaves.
When the Spanish took over Mexico in the 16th century, they heavily taxed raicilla hoping that their Spanish wines and liquors would become more popular. Rebelling against this taxation is what led raicilla to go underground for such a long time.
Today, the three agave spirits, tequila and raicilla from Jalisco, and mezcal from Oaxaca, are all similarly produced but the different varieties of agave as well as their terroir (environmental factors that effect a crop) determine the differences in their taste.
Compared to its agave cousins, raicilla is considered the most fragrant and fruity in the family and quite possibly the most versatile for mixing. Raicilla has a more subtle, less aggressive flavor and has been described as having a bouquet of citrus and floral aromas that are highlighted by notes of orange blossom, hibiscus, beach plum and roasted pineapple. Some will be smokier than others.
Raicilla production is still done in small batches and is considered an artisanal craft. The Council of Raicilla Producers in Mexico has begun the process to obtain denominacion origen status, the same accreditation that mezcal and tequila have.
My friend Miguel has been producing his artisan raicilla for about seven years on his property in Tuito. When we visit him during my Rural El Tuito Tour, he tells us it takes seven years for the agave to be ready for harvest, which usually happens in February.
The tough leaves are cut off revealing the root ball, which looks like a pineapple, or piña. These piñas, weighing about 80 kilos (175 pounds) each, are cut into chunks and placed in his wood-fired pit oven to cook for 2-3 days until they are ready to be ground into mash and fermented in barrels.
After two weeks, the barrels will be checked daily to determine when they are ready for distillation. It takes 30 gallons of fermented liquid to make one quart of raicilla. Miguel does a double distillation which he feels produces a smoother flavor. He ends up with about 200 bottles which he sells from his ranch located in the pine-covered hills just north of Tuito.
If you are visiting Puerto Vallarta, I will happily take you to El Tuito. It is an adventure into rural Mexico that you will truly enjoy.
Sandra Cesca has lived in Puerto Vallarta for 11 years. She is a cultural tour guide with her own small business: Puerto Vallarta Walking Tours. She is also a cultural photographer and writer whose work can be found on Your Cultural Insider and Sandra Cesca Photography. Contact her: sandra.learn.vallarta(at)gmail.com.