Made in the highlands of the Sierra Madre Occidental, raicilla (pronounced rye-see-ya) is an agave spirit rooted in folklore and tradition.

In recent years, we’ve seen several lesser-known artisanal Mexican spirits cross the border and flourish. Bacanora from Sonora, distilled from agave Pacifica, and Sotol from Chihuahua, distilled from the Desert Spoon plant, caused a frenzy among cocktail enthusiasts. To add to the mix, there’s one badass mezcal being produced in Jalisco that we’re pretty sure big tequila companies wouldn’t want you to know about.

The Raicilla Story

With a 400 year history in Mexico, this artisan spirit highlights the floral characteristics of the Maximiliana Agave, commonly known as lechuguilla. From the heart or “piña” of the lechuguilla surface, a bouquet of light citrus and floral aromas are joined by notes of hibiscus, beach plum and pineapple. In comparison to its agave cousins, tequila and mezcal, raicilla is considered the most fragrant and floral spirit in the agave family.

With the arrival of distilling technology in the 16th century, raicilla was transformed from a fermented beverage to the distilled spirit it is today. During this transformation, the spirit grew in popularity among indigenous locals, which led to its illegalization by the ruling Spanish who believed it to be an unsavoury custom. This illegalization forced producers into remote areas to distil in secret – a practice that remained for centuries. This is why for more than 400 years raicilla has been made in the same traditional way, passed down through generations of family distillers.

The Future of Raicilla

Compounding the challenges: official recognition in Mexico remains as elusive as the unofficial recognition. The Council of Raicilla Producers, which meets once a month, owns a collective brand that protects the name and distribution. A process to obtain Denomination of Origin status has begun, the same accreditation that mezcal and tequila have.

The Ninfa Way

Ingredients and instruments

  • Adobe Oven – Adobe Clay
  • Maximiliana Agave Hearts
  • Oak barrels
  • Alambique ( distillation device )
  • Wood canoas or small electric grinder
  • Oakwood

Artisanal Process

You will need a full day or two of harvesting and be cutting the Maximiliana Agave hearts from your plantation or certified wild agave in the Sierra Mountains, and then wake up early the next morning to manually fire your adobe oven 6-8 hours prior to the introduction of the agave, using preferably local oak wood.

Introduce the agave by tossing the sliced hearts over the back entrance of your oven, this should be done quickly to avoid heat loss, cover front & rear oven entrances with adobe clay, if cracks are present cover them as well as temperature is essential. Wait for a minimum of 24 hours (depends on experience and knowledge on your oven) and crack open the front entrance with the help of a hammer, carefully (ovens can reach 800 Celsius) extract the cooked agave and select burnt pieces to discard. The good agave will then be taken to your electric grinding station or your wood canoa to be manually ground with an axe.

Once the agave is completely shredded take it into the fermentation room, which should have been insulated and cleaned prior to this. Insert the agave into the oak barrels and add your agave yeast. The fermenting process should take a couple of days. Next, put the fermented agave into the pre-heated alambique oven and start your distillation process. Depending on the alcohol volume, make a second distillation to obtain your blanco raicilla.

Carlos the glassmith

Mark the lots and send the finished product to a certified lab to be tested. Once the raicilla is cleared you are able to bottle it or age the liquid in the Cava for the desired amount of time. It will take 3 to 6 months for reposado, 6 months to 2 years for añejo, and more than two years for extra añejo. The whole process of making a batch should take no less than a week, from one tonne of agave you should obtain an average of 100 litres.

This is definitely hard work, and it has been the same process for more than three centuries, relying mostly on the experience and expertise of the Maestro Raicillero, but the rewards are infinite. Enjoy your fragrant and delicious raicilla.

Cheers From the Ninfa Team.

PublicHouse visited Ninfa in Sayulita, Mexico.

Ninfa Raicilla & Martin Kovar