In 2004 my brother John (a.k.a. Juan Pablo) Rexer began creatively exporting mezcal from Mexico to his bar, Café No Se in La Antigua, Guatemala. Sometimes dressed as a priest, he and a friend could manage to export 10 to 20 bottles across the border at one time. This worked for a while, but his patrons at the bar liked the mezcal a lot and maintaining supply was becoming a problem.
“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,” recounts Rexer. “Two people can bring 30 or so liters that way. But Oaxaca is a long way from La Antigua. It is a day-and-a-half trip by bus, and then running from village to village to buy mezcal adds on another couple of days, or weeks. It’s an insane way to stock a bar. One day a mezcalero, whom I had been dealing with for some time, proposed that I buy a pallet of mezcal from him. 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?’ 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 tío.’ Which means, ‘don’t 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 mayor’s office. So, when I went to meet him at the address given to me, I was a bit in shock. I had a pickup 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 that reads ‘Alcaldia’ or ‘Mayor’s 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.”
Now almost a decade later, Ilegal Mezcal is offered in 26 states and several markets globally, with over 300 locations in New York alone, including Bottles & Cases, Besito and Restaurant Joanina in Huntington. In Manhattan, Ilegal is savored in places that range from high-end restaurants like Daniel, cocktail bars like Employees Only to neighborhood bars like Puffy’s Tavern.
“When you dive into the details of how mezcal is produced, it is the most artisanal, familial form of liquor production,” says Kaylan Rexer, the brand’s marketing director and one of Ilegal’s self-proclaimed “troublemakers.” “Hand-picked agave, roasted in an earthen oven and then crushed with a traditional millstone that is drawn by a horse,” explains Kaylan, in describing the art of artisanal mezcal. “Eric Hernandez, [Ilegal’s producer] uses a modified oven, requiring less wood to heat, thereby producing a heat more radiant than that of a traditional oven. This is primarily for taste, but it also helps to reduce the deforestation of the Oaxacan region [in Mexico]. Our stills are heated by gas, not wood, and Eric is taking steps to move toward solar power.” In addition, Ilegal’s bottles are hand labeled, hand numbered and hand dipped in wax. Clearly, the most important ingredient that goes into making Ilegal is time.
Knowing where your food and drink comes from has become a right, not a mystery. Ilegal, in spite of its distinctively colorful and surreptitious beginnings, is proud to have joined the “farm-to-bar” movement. Born under the Oaxacan sun and produced in small batches, sip the spirit of time. Slow down and enjoy the pleasure of drinking a spirit that can only be manifested with the art of patience.