||For nearly a decade, a small group of artists, musicians, writers and travelers has been drinking Ilegal Mezcal, a handcrafted brand of Mexican artisanal liquor with a notorious history that includes smuggling and weeklong parties in a clandestine bar in Guatemala.
Ilegal was born out of John Rexer’s bar, Cafe No Se, an eclectic international watering hole in colonial Antigua, Guatemala. ”Ilegal has texture and is not diluted and polluted by an industrial process,” says Rexer. ”It’s like old hand-tooled leather versus cheap pleather. It’s seductive. People from all walks of life understand the difference. It’s a way of thinking and wanting to live as much as it is fine liquor.”
Ilegal is made in Oaxaca by a fourth-generation mezcalero with a passion for keeping a 500-year-old tradition alive. Pure Espadin agave is baked in earthen pits, stone ground, naturally fermented and distilled twice in small batches. The process is an art form and the result is a beautifully balanced spirit with just a kiss of smoke, making it ideal for cocktails or as a sipping spirit.
Ilegal can be savored in three styles. The unaged Joven has notes of anise, white and red pepper and light fruit with a smooth, lingering and heated finish. The Reposado, aged 4 months in American Oak barrels, has a more caramelized flavor with notes of chocolate, butterscotch, medium smoke and some heat with a longer finish. The Anejo, aged 13 months in American Oak, French Oak and bourbon casks, offers bitter-orange notes with hints of maple and clove.
More Story Details
”Ilegal began back in 2004ish, very informally and almost by mistake. I was bringing down mezcal from Oaxaca for my bar, Cafe No Se, in Antigua Guatemala, and the mezcal became popular very quickly. At the time, we were bringing down unbranded mezcal from a variety of villages in Oaxaca that included: Tlaculula, San Lorenzo, Sola De Vega, Santa Catarina Minas, Hierve el Agua, Santago Matatlan and a few others. You see back in 2004, there were very few mezcals that were certified for export, almost none. Bringing a few bottles across the border was not such a big deal, but try getting 50, 100 or 500 bottles across and things get a bit interesting. We had to be a bit creative in how we brought mezcal across the border. Especially at the borders we were crossing where back then, the cops, the military, the gangs and just plain old thieves had to be eluded or navigated or coopted, if you get my drift.
At first it kind of began with us stuffing bottles into duffle bags, packing them as luggage under the bus and praying none of our bags would be inspected. Two people can bring 30 or so liters that way. But Oaxaca is a long way from Antigua. It is a day and half trip by bus and then running from village to village to buy mezcal is another couple of days or weeks. Itís an insane way to stock a bar. One day a mezcalero, whom I had been dealing with for sometime, proposed that I buy a pallet of mezcal from him.“You like my mezcal,Ē he said, “And it is crazy for you to keep bussing up here every other week.Ē I had no idea how much was in a pallet. When he told me 600 bottles, I said, “Man, I have trouble getting 30 bottles across a border. How the hell am I going to get 600?Ē He looked at me and smiled and said an expression I have heard so often in Mexico. One I have come to love. That expression is: No te preoucupes, yo tengo un tio. Which means: Donít worry about it, I have an uncle.
It turns out his uncle was part of a black market operation on the river between Hidalgo and Guatemala that transported everything you can imagine from one side to the other. By the way, this uncle worked in the mayorís office. So, when I went to meet him at the address given to me, I was a bit in shock. I had a pick-up full of not so legal booze and I pulled into this sweltering border town known for its murder rate and look at the sign in front of the door which reads Alcaldia, Mayorís Office. Just after sunset I was taken to a warehouse on the border that in front was a popsicle factory and in the back, behind huge metal doors, was a vast space for goods to be taken across the river. This was the first big run of Ilegal, there would be many more to follow.
There are now many parts of the same mania. I have this obsession with creating little venues for conversation. Cafe No Se has live music 365 days a year and it offers a space for local artist as well as traveling musicians from around the world to meet and play. Itís also a bar where musicians come to hear musicians. Though we do not play a lot of jazz, in the sense I just mentioned, it is a lot like Smalls in NYC in that it is a musicianís hangout. The bookstore is a used bookstore and we have books in 10-20 languages depending on the stock at the time. It carries better contemporary books as well as classics and a beautifully curated selection of books on a variety of subjects. In an age of Kindle and iPad, Iím a big believer in the printed word and the value of a local bookstore as a place to gather and spread ideas. The bookstore also serves as the headquarters for publishing. We began publishing books last year and weíve been publishing La Cuadra Magazine for 7 years now. La Cuadra is pretty special. We have writers from around the world, some professional and some just starting out. The magazine covers politics, art, music, and travel. A good deal of it is in essay format. The idea is to make you think and laugh, to take it all very seriously and not seriously at all. But, most importantly SAY SOMETHING.”