Ilegal Mezcal Goes Straight : New Worlder

Waking up with with a serious hangover in Antigua, Guatemala either means last night was a raging success or a crushing failure. If you’re hanging out with the crew from Ilegal Mezcal at Café No , a morning of squinty eyes, pounding head and mouth dry with the lingering taste of gasoline and smoke, generally indicates the former. The brand has its origins in this backpacker-and-NGO-happy idyll, a short drive from Guatemala City, and since the success of its business holds steady, are working toward a dialogue around sustainability and giving back and away from the story of their illustrious origin.

Mezcal’s natural home is not in Antigua, nor is it in Guatemala. That would be Oaxaca, Mexico (among other states), a region that captured founder John Rexer’s imagination and attention before he landed in Guatemala around 2003. He had left the United States, he told me, after 9/11, disgusted by and disillusioned with what he called the “cotton candy totalitarianism” and blind patriotism that followed the attacks. He went to Mexico first, landing in Tulum “before it was ‘Tulum.’ Watching the first Bush-ordered bombings of Iraq on a small television at a taco stand confirmed to him that he was more comfortable outside of the United States. He bounced around Mexico after that, discovered mezcal, and ended up in Guatemala after overstaying his Mexican visa by a few months.

Rexer ultimately ended up in Antigua with, “max, three or four hundred dollars to my name.” A rainstorm caused him to duck inside a boarded-up storefront with a “se renta” sign, where the owner appeared asking if Rexer would like to rent the space. “I swear, in that moment, it all crystallized for me,” he recalls. “I thought about starting a bookstore; I’d always wanted to do that. I had always wanted to start a bar, too. I could almost see what it would become.”

With experience being an avid reader and enthusiastic drinker, he decided to take the plunge. First, a bookstore was opened. Then the bar, Café No : a dark, cavernous, railroad-style space that crawls back through several rooms. Rexer thought the bar should revolve around agave spirits, an idea he committed to before realizing that there wasn’t much of any kind of agave juice readily available in Guatemala. This being pre-2006, mezcal — Rexer’s favorite agave distillate –wasn’t legal for export out of Mexico.

Instead, Rexer developed his own methods for getting mezcal from Oaxaca to Guatemala, which included “special” border arrangements, dressing up as a priest to appear more favorable to both Mexican and Guatemalan border guards and piloting overnight barges filled with pallets of mezcal down rivers under the guise of moonless skies. All the while, Café No ’s popularity grew, and both the bar and Rexer became a fixture on Antigua’s drinking scene. When mezcal became legal for exportation in 2006, both Rexer and his mezcaleros in Oaxaca suddenly had a brand on their hands, which Rexer aptly named Ilegal Mezcal. The name is intended to be a double entendre: while it clearly references the early days, it also refers to the fact that, in some way, we are all illegal: we participate in illegal activities, whether that’s smuggling alcohol, immigrating without documentation or rolling through a stop sign, and do what we can to get by. The question is whether or not we possess certain distinctions that shield us from criminalization.

It would be easy for the story to end there, and for Ilegal Mezcal to coast on its sensational past and edgy exterior. In truth, there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes. As mezcal continues to grow in popularity, there are concerns about its economic and environmental sustainability. For example, mezcaleros often get bamboozled by international investors who come to Oaxaca with promise of investment and growth, only to bankrupt themselves or share smaller-than-expected percentages of profit. Increased interest in more esoteric agaves has resulted in wide scale depletion of many rare wild agaves, which can’t be cultivated and take decades to mature. Rexer cares about these issues.

Ilegal produces mezcal using only the espadín agave, the most common variety used in making mezcal. As such, it remains the most sustainable agave, as its cultivation practices are well developed, its Oaxacan stock is robust, and it takes only 8-12 years to mature — a much shorter maturation horizon than other agaves. “Had there been other agaves that were cultivated en masse in Oaxaca, we might have used those,” Rexer explains. “Aside from the fact that espadín is the most responsible choice, we want to keep things clean. I go to a bar to make my life simple — I don’t need option anxiety. Espadín is what we can work with, what we love, and what we should do. There is no chance of Ilegal Mezcal depleting wild agave from the hills.”

He continues, “It’s a very idealistic philosophy: we have a chance to do something right, so we should do it. The other side of the coin is that it needs to transform into good, intelligent business decisions. This is to protect the guys at the end of the line — people who are on the ground in Oaxaca — and not necessarily our investors. The investors will recover if we go under, I’ll lose ten years of my life and all my money but will figure it out. Our guys on the farm will not.” To that end, Ilegal puts its money where its mouth is, paying producers up front, at the beginning of a relationship or when a new batch of mezcal is produced, not waiting until a profit is made, which is the practice of most Oaxaca brands.

This discussion brings up a sore spot for Rexer, who laments how precious the narrative surrounding mezcal has become outside of Mexico, as witnessed in tourists and bartenders who go to southern Mexico to see the “real” Oaxaca as they hunt for the perfect Instagram or a good story to go with their Paloma. “People think, ‘Oh! How cute, a guy with a donkey and a machete in the beautiful mountains of Oaxaca.’ What they don’t know is this guy spent 15 years of his life in the United States, maybe illegally, harvesting grapes or being a bar back and sending every penny back home as a remittance. This money went to re-opening a decades-dormant palenque that was closed because grandpa couldn’t make a dime at making mezcal, but now maybe he might be able to. They’re taking a risk on their livelihoods and with their families’ well-being. We have to honor that.”

Continuing on, Rexer explains how this ties into sustainability. “These well-intentioned people get pissed if they see something being done differently to what they heard, saying, ‘But that guy up in the hills with a small palenque and one still, that’s real mezcal.’ And we’re thinking, wait a minute — that same guy, up in the woods, might be burning trash to heat the still. And, because it might have been stored in plastic and not clay or metal, the mezcal has all sorts of chemical impurities in it. They see our guys, and they might say, ‘Whoa, he has four stills and he’s using gas, so that’s not real artisanal mezcal. He’s using a fancy contraption to capture water, that’s not ancient.’ These visitors don’t realize that deforestation is a huge problem in Oaxaca and that water cleanliness and availability is also a systemic issue. We care more about recycling water than looking cute.”  He adds one final indictment. “These are also the same bar managers that want to keep it small-batch, ancient and artisanal and want us to do so for $15 a bottle. Fuck you. We have to pay our people.”

Rexer also takes a shot at the dominant mezcal narratives which Americans seem to have invented around mezcal such as using a worm to sell bottles of the stuff — a marketing ploy — or the notion that it must be consumed a certain way, have a certain alcohol content or be prepared just so to be considered authentic.  “Yes, it’s all an American construction,” he answers. “I get why it happened, you have to figure out how to market this hooch with a worm in it, but the narrative has to be readdressed.”

“There’s a perception — an absolute story but people speak it like gospel — that mezcal has to be 45-58% and not aged, or it’s not mezcal [Note: Ilegal’s clocks in at 40%]. Some early adopters came up and set that in stone, despite later on making 42% the number and specialty aged stuff on the side. There’s also the notion that it must be appreciated, sipped, enjoyed purely for its nuances and tastes. Come on; it’s booze. Come with me through Oaxaca, outside of the city, and see how people drink mezcal. They pull a pomelo from the tree, squeeze it into the glass and sling it back. Or they serve it from a plastic bag. The idea that mezcal is this dogmatic, finite thing, no. This is Oaxaca, it’s as varied as the corn and the number of people making it. It’s an alive, breathing thing. But it’s been branded in the United States as a specific concept.”

Research done on Mexican drinking culture indicates there’s truth to this. According to Tim Mitchell, author of Intoxicated Identities: Alcohol’s Power in Mexican History and Culture, agave distillation evolved as a perfect byproduct of Mexico’s evolution, in that it emerged in the 14-1500’s as a mash up of indigenous agave preparation (as a food) and Hispano-Arabic distillation techniques. This began mostly in the northern part of the country, not by indigenous peoples but by mestizo rancheros, and eventually spread throughout Mexico. Mezcal, eventually separating into different kinds of agave spirits, like tequila, was the drink of choice for working people in both rural and urbanized communities, fueling their baptisms, weddings, funerals, pig roasts and the monotonous happenings of everyday life. “Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, también,” or “for everything bad, mezcal, and also for everything good” was a popular saying, suggesting mezcal, as a moonshine, acted as a salve for a hard life, and wasn’t a specialized, artisanal sipper revered for its nuances and tastes. Rexer insists he doesn’t want to fight this battle, but it’s clear he feels a responsibility to communicate the history of the spirit authentically.

Rexer’s sense of responsibility also extends to the community in which he lives. In Guatemala, Ilegal is a major benefactor of Niños de Guatemala, an NGO that provides underserved neighborhoods and children with quality schooling and social programming (Disclosure: I sponsor a child in the program as a result of my time spent researching Ilegal Mezcal). The entire second floor of a secondary school in Ciudad Vieja was recently completed, thanks to sales of Ilegal’s “Donald eres un pendejo” t-shirts and posters. This marketing campaign predates Trump’s election, hatched in 2015 with posters on the streets of New York two days after Trump announced his candidacy for President.

While the Trump campaign has taken on a life of its own, a large part of Ilegal’s brand strategy also involves events and live music, an obvious continuation of the party at Café No Sé, that give back politically, as well locally. The proceeds from both t-shirt sales and tickets to these events have been used to not only fund schools in Guatemala, but are donated directly to Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. The team just announced another Ilegal Music Series, set for spring 2017, aimed specifically at benefitting Planned Parenthood, which will feature woman-only acts performing stripped down sets. The brand has seen outsized success, too: it recently signed into a partnership with Bacardi, wherein it maintains its independence but gains access to its distribution network across the United States.

All of this is intended to be cohesive, as Rexer is incapable of doing something that isn’t all in. “I thought about this when I started Café No Sé,” Rexer says. “If you have something to fall back on, you’re going to fall back on it. So I just jumped right in and one thing led to another.” That air of carefree thinking and living belies the fact that Rexer is an intensely thoughtful person who thinks long and hard about what he’s doing and everyone and everything it affects in its wake. By utilizing this approach to business, Ilegal Mezcal managed to find success, without compromise, and is now giving back without compromise. Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, también.