By John McCloud
For many years, raicilla was thought of as the poor man’s tequila. Often referred to as Mexican moonshine, the potent drink from the mountains of Cabo Corrientes was sold and served surreptitiously, favored by many but savored by few. But the passage of a law in 2007 designating raicilla from a single region of the state of Jalisco as an official Mexican alcoholic appellation has transformed the outlaw beverage into the Cinderella of 21st-century mixology, moving from the back corner of cheap cantinas to the top shelf of upscale restaurants, ready to take its place alongside not only its better known cousins, tequila and mezcal, but also the finest liquors of the world.
There’s no better way to discover the surprising pleasures of this once-denigrated libation than to make a visit to Hacienda El Divisadero, a 710-acre estate in the hills south of Puerto Vallarta. Developed and owned by Florentino Carbajal Ramírez, proprietor of the popular Mariscos Tino restaurants in Puerto Vallarta and Nuevo Vallarta, the hacienda produces 10,000 to 15,000 liters of raicilla per year, using an entirely organic process designed to remain in balance with the existing ecosystem.
The one-hour journey to El Divisadero takes you 2,000 feet into the mountains through vast stretches of largely undisturbed natural habitat checkered with prosperous farm and ranch land and broken by free-flowing rivers. The tour includes a brief stop in El Tuito, a historic town of 3,500 people whose handsome but somewhat weathered Colonial-style core dates back to the 18th century. With temperatures significantly cooler than those of Puerto Vallarta and a very tranquil pace of life, the sleepy village, now known as the center of the burgeoning raicilla trade, offers a pleasant contrast to the hotter and more animated environment of the city.
The hacienda lies about 15 minutes beyond El Tuito. Between the two is the extensive Los Guasimas tract of Eijido land belonging to descendants of the Nahuatl people, whose ancestors formed the powerful Aztec nation. On this land grows most of the maguey, or agave, plant that is the basis of both raicilla and tequila.
Also on the land is the family home of Carbajal’s wife, through whose family the popular restaurateur was able to obtain permission to build the estate. It was also through his wife’s family that he found people with the knowledge and skill to plant, nurture and process the eight varieties of maguey that grow on the property and to transform the plants into the rich and delicious raicilla.
On the day we visit the hacienda, Carbajal’s engaging and informative nephew Armando leads our small group on a tour of the property and the surrounding country. Like his uncle, Armando, who grew up in Puerto Vallarta, married a young woman from Cabo Corrientes and now lives full time in El Tuito. He has made it his mission to learns as much as possible about the natural, historical and cultural resources of both the hacienda and the region.
After seating us in the handsome open-air dining room of the traditional stone villa that forms the heart of the hacienda, Armando arranges a light and refreshing breakfast with fresh fruits and juices, home-made pan dulce, and coffee or tea. Some tables offer a view of the villa’s serene garden courtyard while others overlook the neighboring natural hills and valleys.
Armando then begins a demonstration of cheese-making techniques, followed by the opportunity to sample all the six cheese products made on site for use at the hacienda as well as at the three Mariscos Tino restaurants. We sample from an attractive spread that includes sour cream, Oaxaca, Chihuahua and panela style cheese, along with queso oreado and queso seco, the Mexican equivalents of mozzarella and Parmesan. Armando points out that the rennet, or cuajo, used to render the cheese, comes from the stomach lining of white-tailed deer hunted on the property.
After breakfast, visitors have a choice of taking an escorted horseback ride through the surrounding hills, a hike around the ranch or a simple period of rest in one of the comfortable equipale chairs that line the villa’s shaded arcade. Next up is a lecture on the history of raicilla and a tour of the hacienda’s distillery. We see examples of the property’s 32,000 agave plants, some of which grow to 18 feet high and view the fire pit, where the temperature can rise to 950 degrees Celsius. We also see various pieces of distilling equipment, most of it hand-made by Tino and his staff.
This is followed by the opportunity to sample raicilla itself, which contrary to expectation, is as smooth and soothing as the finest brandy. The tour continues with a trip to the Tuito River and a visit to one of 72 ancient petroglyphs, or carved stones, that dot the Las Guasimas land. Armando, who is studying shamanism, conducts a simple ritual designed to open the guests’ chakras.
The day ends with a second meal back at the hacienda, a hearty and delicious lunch of beef arrachera, chicken mole, barbecued lamb, chorizo and grilled pork, served with ranch-style beans and fresh tortillas. The lunch is accompanied by all the raicilla margaritas you can drink. In addition to the traditional lime margarita, you can choose from any of 24 fruit varieties, including such exotic choices as passion fruit, guayaba, avocado and gondo, a blueberry-like fruit that grows wild in the area. The meal is topped off by a tempting dessert of cheese flan or fried banana. You can buy bottles of Hacienda El Divisadero raicilla during the tour or afterwards at Mariscos Tino.
For those who want to spend more time in the mountains, Hacienda El Divisadero offers four comfortable rooms for overnight stay. Future plans include a second guest villa with additional rooms, a swimming pool and other amenities.
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