Raicilla in Puerto Vallarta
“Dos tequilas, por favor,” I told the waiter, testing the functional limits of my Spanish.
He looked at us and shook his head gravely. “Señor, it is almost 3 p.m.” A delicate hand gesture towards the mid-afternoon sun baking the red rooftops of Puerto Vallarta proved his assertion. He paused, patiently, while we once again took in the impressive hillside view from the little restaurant, Banderas Bay winking azure at us from below.
“It is too late in the day for tequila,” he continued eventually.
“You do not want to ruin your appetite for dinner. I suggest you should have some raicilla instead. It is much better for your digestion,” he told us, patting his broad belly with a knowing wink.
Acquiescing to his much-evident expertise, we nodded. Manuel, or so his name tag said, returned from the bar with an unadorned bottle of clear liquor, and poured two sizable measures into blown-glass sipping cups.
“Raicilla is our local agave spirit here in Jalisco,” he explained, pulling up a chair to join us. I’d read about the drink but had never been properly introduced. I raised an eyebrow, inviting Manuel to continue.
After a seven-minute lecture on its merits, we lifted our glasses to sip the smoky liquor. Raicilla has a broader flavor profile than tequila or mezcal, and this first example had been home-distilled in the mountains behind the town. It tasted fruity, leathery, and like 120-proof moonshine.
My eyes watered a little, though Manuel was kind enough not to notice.
While periodically refilling our cups, Manuel spent the next hour or so telling us about his ranch up in the hills. Originally a small family holding, the farm had been greatly expanded by his father through the judicious application of government loan money. He took pride in assuring us that those millions of pesos would never be repaid to the government.
Taxes were subject to similar disregard by Manuel’s clan; “It was always our land,” he told us by way of an uncertain explanation.
The ‘traditional’ family business of raicilla distillation had been superseded by farming and cattle-ranching as the property expanded, but wild agave grew as abundantly as ever and they considered themselves boutique producers of the spirit.
“We’re quite rich now,” Manuel concluded his narrative with a humble smile.
“How do you like the raicilla?”
Without committing to an effusive answer, we ordered more. It was Semana Santa, the holy week leading up to Easter, and Puerto Vallarta was in full celebration mode, vibrant with music and color. A raicilla day-buzz gave perfect context to the nearby bells of Our Lady of Guadalupe, so we settled deeper into our chairs and reached for our cups.