Javier Villagran is the founder of Balam, a start-up, distilled agave spirits brand hailing from Jalisco, Mexico. We’ve had the pleasure of spending time with Javier over the past year and wanted to share some of the history behind the artisanal spirit, raicilla, and his brand that arrived in the United States last month.
Laika Spirits: Tell us about your work in the distilled spirits world, Javier.
Javier Villagran: I am a Producer, Wholesaler and Promoter of handcrafted destilados de agave, or spirits distilled from agave. My main interests are preserving and rescuing the traditions of our Master Mezcaleros, to show our great products to the world.
LS: One of the destilados de agave that you work with is called raicilla. What is a raicilla?
JV: Raicilla is the Mezcal from the state of Jalisco. It is a special selection of yellow agaves growing in the coastal region. A pre-hispanic process of production is followed and it is distilled in Philippine alembics, which are traditional clay pots.
LS: Does the word raicilla have a particular meaning?
JV: It literally means “drink made of roots.” During the colonial period, distillation was prohibited so locals started calling it by a different name to hide the fact that it was a type of mezcal. A market and tradition started in that region due to the rules that attempted to ban its consumption. This is true of all the indigenous spirits of that time. Based on its illegal origins, people call it Mexican Moonshine.
LS: Did raicilla originate in Jalisco?
JV: There is knowledge that the Huichole Tribes (an indigenous culture from South México) were producing raicilla thousands of years ago in The Sierra Madre Occidental; at the north of Jalisco, Nayarit's south and bordering municipalities. The agave it is made from grows in the pacific coast of Mexico, that is why you can only find it in specific areas, allowing it to be differentiated from other mezcal.
LS: It’s interesting that the local demand for this spirit came from stepping around certain rules and restrictions. What else about the history of raicilla intrigues you.
JV: The spirit of raicillas is full of mysticism and myths.
There are many people that believe raicilla has hallucinogenic properties and it seems to be a big reason why there are tourists visiting the areas looking for it. But don’t worry! The reality is that raicillas have a high percentage of alcohol and a soft flavor and this makes it easy for people to become intoxicated. It’s just like any other distilled beverage.
LS: How is it produced?
JV: The process is Pre-Hispanic and is handmade. It´s curious because you transport yourself ancient times, you can see the agaves being transported on mules, fueling the ovens with wood, crushing the cooked agave with huge wood mallet. The fermentation is done in a hollowed-out tree; the distillation uses the clay pots with a lid and a case with water used to cool.
LS: What are the differences between both types Joven and Madurado?
JV: Joven is Blanco, or silver. Bottled after distillation. The Madurado is kept in crystal containers for as long as 3 years; preserving the purity and avoiding any external flavors (like wood or other things) to interact with the liquid. The end result is a much more rich distillate that at all times keeps the taste of the plant as the main character of the story.
LS: Why did you started Balam? And is there a particular meaning to the word.
JV: Balam means jaguar in the Mayan language.This Project was born in Mexico City in 2006. During our multiple trips to the State of Oaxaca (land of my wife) I fell in love with the mezcal, the culture behind it, and the people who see this a way of living.
LS: Do you know how many raicilla brands are for sale within Mexico?
JV: At this moment there are 20 recognized brands at CMPR (Mexican Raicilla Producers Committee)
LS: Do you know how many have been exported to the Unites States? Based on our knowledge, we believe that Balam is only the second to arrive in the US.
JV: We are very proud to announce that Balam is the second brand to be introduced (legally) into the United States. It took much hard work, as you know.
LS: We know you are an advocate of artisanal producers. Can you explain what is going on with the mezcal Industry? And how is it affecting the producers?
JV: In the last few years the “Distilled Spirits of Agave” have been in the middle of controversy. First mezcal got its appellation of origin, which should protect the Mexican industry; in reality it introduced several rules that blocked the small producers to continue with their traditions. Either they have no resources to invest in the CRM (mezcal regulator) requirements or they were just outside the regions that were designated to be part of the mezcal region. There are Mezcaleros from north to south, from east to west all around Mexico. Is clear that the described approach affected a big number of people.
In the present the industry is mainly directed by big corporations, which in some ways are departing from its original appeal. Today there is a big controversy because the people outside the mezcal denomination were selling as Distilled Spirits of Agave, but there are initiatives to control the word agave to avoid them to use it. Overall, there are new roadblocks for the smaller producers and it makes it difficult for consumers to reach these high quality, artisanal products.
I am a really big advocate of small producers and that is the reason why I started to work with raicilla (not allowed to be called mezcal). I will keep trying to protect the industry’s beauty and traditions, showing the people in Mexico and abroad what it represents.