It languished in relative obscurity for decades and was written off as Mexican moonshine, but raicilla has finally found its footing in the spirits market. Now, artisanal raicilla rubs shoulders with sotols and mezcals on bar menus across North America. Yet, outside of select circles, it maintains an enigmatic appeal.\r\n\r\n\r\nWhat is raicilla?\r\n\u201cRaicilla is the mezcal of Jalisco,\u201d says Nikhil Bahadur, co-owner of raicilla brand Las Perlas.\r\n\r\nAn agave spirit made from a variety of wild and cultivated plants in Jalisco, there are two distinct strains of raicilla: de la costa (coastal) and de la sierra (mountainous).\r\n\r\nWhereas most mountainous raicilla is produced with maximiliana Baker, inaequidens Koch and valenciana agaves, coastal raicilla typically incorporates a wider range of agaves into the final product, including angustifolia Haw and rhodacantha.\r\n\r\n\r\nHow is raicilla made?\r\nAfter the agave is harvested, the pencas (agave leaves) are separated from the pi\u00f1as (agave hearts). The latter are roasted, fermented and distilled in tabernas (raicilla distilleries) by raicilleros (distillers).\r\n\r\nCoastal raicillas are made typically with more ancestral methods.\r\n\r\n\u201cIn our case, our oven has stone walls made both of brick and volcanic rock,\u201d says Jorge Luis Carbajal D\u00edaz, co-owner of Las Perlas and a fourth-generation raicilla producer from Cabo Corrientes on the Jalisco coast. \u201cThe oven is pre-heated for 8\u201310 hours. Once it\u2019s warmed up\u2026we add the agave hearts and leave them underground for three days.\u201d\r\n\r\nAfter the pi\u00f1as have roasted below ground, they\u2019re mashed and left to ferment for around 30 days before they move to distillation. On the coast, traditional wood-fired stills, commonly referred to as Filipino-style, have been favored for more than 200 years. Distillation occurs inside a clay or copper chamber, itself contained within a hollow tree trunk. Mountainous raicilla producers lean toward copper alembic pot stills.\r\n\r\nAlthough some producers, like La Venenosa, offer single-distilled raicillas, many brands stick to double distillations.\r\n\r\n\r\nWhat does raicilla taste like?\r\nMore fragrant than Tequila and without the signature smokiness of mezcal, raicilla is noted for floral and vegetal overtones. But the taste comes down mostly to terroir.\r\n\r\nCarbajal D\u00edaz points to the distinction between the dry coastal and sweeter mountainous raicillas as a perfect example. \u201cIt\u2019s a totally different taste,\u201d he says. \u201cThere\u2019s no point of comparison between the two.\u201d\r\n\r\nIn La Estancia, Jalisco, where Rio Chenery, the co-owner of Estancia Raicilla, grows agave, the surrounding fauna contributes to the spirit\u2019s overall flavor profile.\r\n\r\n\u201cIt grows below pine trees and so it takes on sort of like these piney, fresh flavors and it just has an inherently botanical profile,\u201d says Chenery, adding that \u201ca few of our batches have this sort of pear and orange blossom profile.\u201d\r\n\r\nThere are certainly some misconceptions swirling about raicilla, though.\r\n\r\n\u201cPeople think raicillas will be funky or blue cheesy or this or that\u2026 [but] it's not moonshine. It doesn't have to be kind of funky or crazy or harsh,\u201d says Bahadur.\r\n\r\n\r\nHow should you drink it?\r\nUnlike Tequila and mezcal, raicilla should be served cold. While Due\u00f1as Pe\u00f1a recommends using a grappa glass filled to the mid-point of the bulb for the best results, Chenery prefers it on the rocks. \u201cAll that floral flavor really comes on the nose and it\u2019s beautiful,\u201d he says.\r\n\r\nBut if you really want to get weird with it, Chenery\u2019s partner, Paola Coria, recommends raicilla alongside jicama sticks sprinkled with finely ground coffee beans or sliced green tomato with a dash of agave worm salt (sal de gusano). She also recommends it as a replacement for gin in a Negroni.\r\n\r\nThe spirit\u2019s versatility lends itself to mixed drinks. Dedicated raiciller\u00edas (raicilla bars), like Puerto Vallarta\u2019s La Lul\u00fa Raiciller\u00eda, have sprung up across Mexico and beyond, and cocktail menus featuring raicilla are becoming more widespread.\r\n\r\n\u201cIt\u2019s a really versatile spirit, which is, I think, why we\u2019re having some success with cocktails. I think that\u2019s because bartenders love to play with it,\u201d says Chenery. \u201cYou know, mezcal is always up, it\u2019s always gonna come forward [and] be the main sort of player in a cocktail. Raicilla can be a back player\u2026it doesn't have to be the main show.\u201d\r\n\r\n\r\nThe history of raicilla\r\nAs with any formerly illicit regional spirit, the history of raicilla remains fuzzy. According to Jorge Antonio Due\u00f1as Pe\u00f1a, owner of Destiladora del Real and raicilla historian, the spirit dates to the 17th century in San Sebasti\u00e1n del Oeste, a mountainous mining town in Jalisco. La Venenosa touts the raicilla\u2019s 500-year history and claims it was renamed in the 18th century to avoid a tax levied by the Spanish crown.\r\n\r\nWhatever the truth, raicilla was produced clandestinely in small towns and villages across Jalisco and sold on the street in old Coke bottles or plastic jugs. Estancia Raicilla nods cleverly to the roadside roots of raicilla, as it sells its small-batch spirits in glassware made from recycled Coke bottles.\r\n\r\n\r\nDesignation of Origin\r\nIn June, raicilla was awarded Denominaci\u00f3n de Origen (DO) status by the Mexican government, which protects the name and establishes rules for the spirit\u2019s production. Agave spirits produced outside of the 16 Jalisco municipalities and one lone Nayarit municipality, Bah\u00eda de Banderas, cannot market their products as raicilla.\r\n\r\nThe decision hasn\u2019t been without backlash. Some have contested the inclusion of Bah\u00eda de Banderas, a region with no history of raicilla production.\r\n\r\n\u201c[Incorporating] Nayarit was a whim of one person who said, \u2018We have to include it,\u2019 but I was always opposed,\u201d says Due\u00f1as Pe\u00f1a, who also founded the Mexican Raicilla Promotion Council. \u201cI even submitted a letter to the INPI (Mexican Institute of Industrial Production) in which I wasn\u2019t in agreement with the inclusion of Nayarit, but it went ignored.\u201d\r\n\r\nOthers questioned the inclusion of autoclave distillation. While used in commercial Tequila production, autoclaves, which speed up distillation and open the door for mass-production, have never historically been a part of raicilla process.\r\n\r\n\u201cI don't think that should have been included at all\u2026 That\u2019s just not how raicilla has ever been produced, so why put that in there?\u201d says Bahadur. Chenery says that thought needs to be given to \u201chow the rules and certification process will impact these smaller producers.\u201d\r\n\r\nControversy over the finer details of raicilla\u2019s protected status aside, the stage seems set for this once-maligned artisanal spirit to become the latest star of the drink world. Whether you choose try it in a cocktail or sip it neat in all its floral glory is up to you.