Dispatch, Puerto Vallarta: Raicilla chaser

By Eric Moya
Copy editor Eric Moya recently visited Puerto Vallarta during the city's second annual National Charro Championships. His first dispatch follows.

Who knew finding a drink in Puerto Vallarta could be so hard?

To clarify: The tourism metropolis on Mexico's Pacific coast hadn't, in some cruel twist, gone dry just in time for my arrival for a recent press trip. In fact, from the Corona-branded bar at the airport, to the margarita specials touted by restaurants and bars lining the highway to the hotel zone, to the welcome cocktail in the lobby of the Sheraton Buganvilias, within my first hour in Puerto Vallarta there were plenty of opportunities to imbibe.

Puerto Vallarta CantaritoBut I had a particular libation in mind: raicilla. Pronounced ry-SEE-ya, it's a liquor found in Jalisco state and is derived, like tequila and mescal, from agave plants. Unlike its sibling spirits, however, raicilla hasn't really caught on outside its region of origin: Its high alcohol content made it illegal until about a decade ago, according to one of the guides on our press trip. But today there are a handful of licensed distillers, so I figured it'd be easy enough to find, especially in P.V., Jalisco's party capital.

Not so. For the better part of two days during my three-night visit, there was no raicilla to be found. Not from the vendors at Puerto Vallarta's second annual National Charro Championships, held in cattle country about 20 minutes northeast of the airport. Not at the resorts or restaurants in and around the hotel zone that were part of the packed press trip. Not even at the gift shops that line the bustling Malecon promenade, where tequila and mescal -- in vessels of every shape and size, from elegant cylinder to conversation-starting six-shooter -- shared space with colorful knickknacks inspired by the art of the region's indigenous huichol people.

With one full day left to go, I ventured out once again. But a couple of attempts in the afternoon proved fruitless, so I contented myself with a michelada (beer with bloody Mary mix) and lunch at La Chata, P.V.'s outpost of the family-owned Guadalajara institution. I was reminded of Puerto Vallarta's own classic La Palapa, a family-owned beachfront cafe opened in 1959 that today serves contemporary Mexican seafood dishes with an Asian influence. It was still on my to-do list, so I made my way down to Los Muertos Beach.

Over an entree of red snapper with asparagus and chorizo mashed potatoes, I gazed past Los Muertos' newly renovated pier as evening approached, hoping for one last glimpse of the green flash that sometimes accompanies a Puerto Vallarta sunset before reconvening with my group. Time for one last drink, and though a survey of the bottles behind the bar turned up empty, I figured maybe the bartender could at least point me in the right direction.

Puerto Vallarta Raicilla"Senor, tiene raicilla?" I asked, having practiced the question often enough that I was confident my pronunciation was at least comprehensible.

"Si!" From underneath the bar, he grabbed a plastic water bottle, some faded scribbling in black marker indicating that the clear, colorless liquid within was no longer for hydration.

Taking a sniff, the smokiness was potent, like blended scotch times 10; unlike with tequila, there was no bouquet of agave here. I winced a bit, and the bartender grinned and nodded knowingly.

I gulped it down, and my temples tingled immediately. Surprisingly, it didn't burn -- more like an intense warmth. Still, it was pretty powerful stuff. Mescal may have the bad-boy cachet, bearing its trademark worm like a Tapout T-shirt or tribal tattoo, but for me, one swig left no doubt that raicilla is the no-nonsense, switchblade-packing member of the agave liquors family.

My search at an end, I made my way to the host restaurant for the final dinner of the press trip -- and spotted a store with bottles of raicilla for sale, about $25. And as the staff began serving dessert, we were told they had raicilla there, too. I was almost a little disappointed that it was suddenly ubiquitous, and felt a little foolish when I realized the Sheraton's friendly, knowledgeable concierge could've cut my quest short. But I was happy that others in the group would get to sample this drink they'd been hearing about, probably to the point of annoyance, over the past few days.

About half the table decided they wanted in. One of the writers put his nose to his glass, then jumped back in his seat: "Whoa." I grinned and nodded knowingly.
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