The use of agave in a distilled spirit dates back at least to the Spanish conquistadors in 16th century Mexico, but its use as a source of fiber, medicine, food and drink dates back thousands of years.
The evergreen desert succulent, which has sharp tips and serrated edges, belongs to the same botanical family as asparagus. Well-known agave-derived spirits include tequila and mezcal, but there are others.
Raicilla is one of the oldest, but least-known, agave spirits, first enjoyed by miners and farmers. It’s been around for more than 500 years, but only has been made commercially since the 2000s, and now is available in the U.S.
Any spirit that is made from distilling agave technically falls under the umbrella term mezcal, which can be produced only in nine states in Mexico, with the majority made in Oaxaca. Tequila is made only from blue weber agave and is produced only in Jalisco, which also produces tequila. Raicilla also is distilled in Jalisco, but from different fermented agave.
There generally are two types of raicilla: de la costa (of the coast) and de la sierra (of the mountains). There are three main types of agave used: maximiliana, Americana and puta de mula. Most of the major producers are in the mountains. The category further can be broken down into two roasting techniques. In one way, cooked agave hearts are roasted in stone-lined pits, crushed, fermented then distilled. Pit-roasting adds a slight mezcal-like smokiness. The other way is roasting in clay ovens, which lends a cleaner, more herbal flavor, not unlike gin.
Like mezcal, the flavor profile of raicilla varies due to the type of agave used, the region in which it is grown, and the production process. It’s a sort of bridge between the flavors of mezcal and tequila. “It’s much more floral and vegetal than tequila, and has much less smoke than mezcals,” said Cory Atkinson of Elemental Spirits Co. (602 N. Highland Ave. NE, Atlanta. 404-990-4310, elementalspirits.co).
Elemental sells Mexihat raicilla ($66 per 750-milliliter bottle, 80 proof), one of only four types on the market in the U.S., Atkinson noted.
Each bottle is a little different and features a handmade beaded cat from Huichoi artist Jorge Alvarez. The producer gives back to the native Huichoi community in Jalisco, with a sustainability arm that focuses on cultivated agave, instead of depleting the wild agave population.
Credit: Brooke Schwab
Credit: Brooke Schwab
Elemental Spirits also carries a few types of sotol, the traditional spirit of northern Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert. Sotol is not produced from agave, but from a member of the same asparagus family: dasylirion wheeleri, or desert spoon. Only the hearts of wild harvested plants in the states of Chihuahua, Durango and Coahuila are used, and, when harvested, the root is left intact for the plants to regrow.
While it historically has been made in smaller batches, as a craft passed down through generations, production is similar to mezcal. Harvested at maturity (about 15 years), the heart (piña) is slow-roasted over coals in earthen pits, mashed and left to ferment for days. It then is distilled twice in pot stills. The average yield per plant is 1 liter.
Much like tequila, sotol is bottled unaged (plata), aged several months (reposado) and aged up to two years (anejo).
Desert spoon thrives in arid desert and forest environs, and one sip gives your taste buds a reminder of the landscape in which it grows. It’s deeply earthy, with pine, eucalyptus, white pepper, light smoke, sagebrush and grassy notes, and finishes crisp and bright.
Chihuahuan Desert sotol is the debut product from the Marfa Spirit Co., distilled in Mexico and bottled in Marfa, Texas, in a century-old feed mill turned distillery. It was created in collaboration with sotolero (sotol producer) Jacobo Jacquez of Janos, Mexico, to carry on the legacy of the Mexican sotol tradition.
The product launched in the U.S. last fall, and likely will find its way onto cocktail menus as a versatile and straight-sipping spirit. Look for Chihuahuan Desert sotol ($48 per 1 liter, 90 proof) online in mid-February.
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