For at least 500 years, after Spanish colonizers arrived in the Americas, Mexicans have been drinking mezcal, a distilled liquor native to Oaxaca that may as well be tequila’s primo. It’s safe to say that most Mexicans – and Latinos, for that matter – are more than familiar with the agave-based spirit and its smoky flavor, which has been the cause of many a hangover for yours truly. But judging by the wealth of media attention it has garnered in the past couple years (and this year alone), it seems like mezcal is just starting to break into Gringolandia’s mainstream, perhaps because of the ever-powerful force of constructed nostalgia. Unlike tequila, mezcal continues to be produced on a small scale. So it’s no surprise that American consumers are beginning to appreciate the spirit for its artisanal roots, even if they’re returning to a liquor that might not be so familiar to them.
A series of boutique mezcal companies have cropped up to capitalize on the budding market, and one supplier stands out: Ilegal Mezcal. The brand boasts three mezcal products, a music series, and even its own café. They’re also behind those anti-Trump posters you may have seen plastered across New York, Los Angeles, and Miami’s billboards and back alleys. In bold black and white letters, they put Trump on blast, declaring: “Donald eres un pendejo” and “The only thing that should be ilegal is mezcal.” To get a better sense of the vision behind Ilegal, we sat down with the company’s founder and brand director, John and Kaylan Rexer, who just happen to be uncle and niece.
— Ilegal Mezcal (@IlegalMezcal) July 19, 2015
Ilegal has dubious origins, to say the least. John recounts his travels between the colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala and Oaxaca heartily and warmly. Antigua is home to both the company and his grassroots project Café No Sé, a rustic and cozy bar that draws visitors from every corner of the globe.
In 2003, Rexer decided his bar needed mezcal, and back then, high-quality mezcal wasn’t even bottled or certified for export. “I would go from palenque to palenque [mezcal production facility]. Back then, I was using a Polaroid camera. I would photograph the distillation method in each place, the kind of style it was made in, and then I would cross the border back from Mexico into Guatemala and bring it to my bar.” It started out slowly, but the demand for Rexer’s product skyrocketed. The New York Times, among other outlets, started writing about a brand of mezcal that didn’t technically exist yet. He says it took many years for Ilegal to become a full-fledged spirit producer. “Let’s just say that I had to be very creative in how I crossed the border with my mezcal. So I was not doing it in the most legal of methods. I was crossing the river, basically. You know that Los Tigres del Norte song ‘Tres Veces Mojado?’ I’m about 60 veces mojado.”
“The posters are not meant to be seen as anger, but they are meant to be seen as protest.”
But aside from the questionable legality of its beginnings, Rexer seems to recognize the political weight that the brand name holds. “Obviously, the name is very dynamic; it calls into question a lot of things. As we export to the United States, there are so many things that we should always being questioning the legality of. Whether it’s gay marriage, whether it’s immigration, whether it’s drug reform – all of these things that are political footballs – what’s legal and what’s not legal should be deeply questioned in this time. Because there’s a great deal of hypocrisy.” In part, that’s what prompted John and Kaylan to launch an unapologetic street art campaign dedicated to clowning Trump’s fuckery. Since we’re all about calling out the presidential candidate here at Remezcla, we had to get Rexer’s perspective on the whole situation. I ask him what he hopes people take away from the initiative. “The posters are not meant to be seen as anger, but they are meant to be seen as protest.”
He wants to echo the anti-Trump sentiment shared by much of the Latino community. “The take away is that there’s a lot of us out here – Latin Americans, Mexican-Americans – and we think [he’s] an asshole.” That visibility is much-needed, especially since the posters are spreading in cities with such high Latino populations. Along with that visibility comes a form of validation, a sense that your struggle is not just being acknowledged, but supported. And the initiative has grown beyond just the posters. On September 11, the company projected an image of the campaign onto the New Museum of Contemporary Art building:
El Pendejo de #donaldtrump in #NYC @ilegalmezcal A photo posted by Herminio Torres (@thedistantfutures) on
Rexer drew inspiration for the campaign from the time he spent living in Oaxaca during the bloody 2006 protests, which stemmed from a teachers’ strike. “I was tear gassed. I couldn’t even get out of Oaxaca for almost three weeks. The protest in Oaxaca was done with the most brilliant street art and street murals. So I thought that this was in the grand tradition of Oaxacan protest.” Ilegal has also designed “Donald eres un pendejo” t-shirts, the proceeds of which will be donated to the New York State Youth Leadership Council, a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering undocumented youth and supporting immigration reform. Kaylan explains that the company wanted to work with a local organization, so that even if revenue from t-shirt sales wasn’t significant, “it would actually make a difference.”
Aside from Café No Sé and the anti-Trump campaign, Rexer says the company is taking time to develop its music series and expand interest in mezcal. The music series has hit venues in Montauk, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and slew of other places across the country. Rexer intends to spread a little bit of the spirit and community he’s built in Antigua at Café No Sé. “If we’re gonna promote mezcal in the U.S., let’s promote some musicians from Guatemala. Let’s make this fun and not just about selling booze.” It isn’t just about getting people to drink what might be new to them, but getting them to understand the history and tradition of consumption behind the spirit. He adds that it should be “appreciated the way that people drink it in Oaxaca, with a beer and a shot…In Oaxaca, it’s something that people on the farms drink – something that people in downtown Oaxaca drink. They’re not putting up their pinkies and saying, ‘Ooh, do you taste the chocolate and the vanilla?’”
In his endeavor to spread awareness of mezcal, Rexer seeks to make production “sustainable throughout the chain, all the way from the grower to us.” He notes that many have tried to launch a brand in Mexico without realizing the particulars of the industry, leading to their inevitable exploitation of small mezcal producers. “We’ve seen a lot of people over the years come in…and promise [things] palenque owners. Like, ‘Hey, I’m going to create this brand. Give me 1,000 bottles of mezcal and I’ll give you 50 percent down now and pay you later.’ They don’t know how to export; they don’t understand how difficult this is. And they vanish. And the poor person sitting in Oaxaca has gotten burned.”
Ultimately, it seems like Rexer has a genuine commitment to making the hand-crafted spirit accessible and ethical, protecting the Mexican community in the process. “I would say half of our employees at this point are Mexican-Americans, which is great. They have family back in Oaxaca, or they have family back in Veracruz…I hope we can continue to grow the company with the people that mezcal means so much to, personally and culturally.”