Illegal by name and, once upon a time, by nature, Ilegal Mezcal is no stranger to getting creative with the law when it suits it, most famously when reacting to Trump’s candidacy with a guerrilla marketing campaign calling him an “asshole” for his racist remarks about Mexican immigrants. Its chequered past makes for a great story but is the liquid any good? That’s what we’re here to find out!
Ilegal Mezcal got its start in life in the early 2000s when its would-be founder, John Rexer, visited Mexico and fell head over heels in love with mezcal. He wanted to sell it in his bar in Guatemala, however mezcal was not yet a legal export so he had to get a little…creative…with the transportation. This creativity resulted in the now famous Café No Se “accidentally” becoming the first mezcal bar outside of Mexico. The Oaxaca produced spirit proved so popular that John decided to import it legitimately in 2006 and name it “Ilegal” as an ode to its past.
The Here And Now
Since then, Ilegal has become one of the leading CRM Certified Artisanal Mezcals in the US market. This is in no small part down to Bacardí (the world’s largest independent spirits company) acquiring a minority stake in Ilegal in 2017 – a move that John has faced backlash against from the small batch mezcal producing community.
In an interview with The Spirits Business in October 2018, John is quoted as saying, “In the US in particular, distribution is one of the hardest things to achieve…Bacardí gave us entry into the largest distribution network in the US, which was fantastic. I think people need to understand that if larger brands that grow can maintain integrity and quality, it will help support other brands in the category and help achieve a bigger ecosystem to help the whole category grow.”
Whilst his position may not be shared with a percentage of mezcal producers, John’s view is that “If mezcal does not reach certain volumes it does not become economically viable for the big distributors whether in the UK or US…Then what happens is it becomes a very small, non-profit-making boutique industry where the category could very quickly die as an export product…and becom[e] a rich man’s hobby.”
John’s defence of growth however is conditional on the fact that brands “make sure the product stays artisanal, and [brands] are attempting to learn from mistakes made elsewhere when things grew too quickly.”
With that said, let’s look at the liquid!
How it’s Made
All of Ilegal Mezcal’s products to date are made with 100% Espadín. The brand states that fourth-generation mezcaleros harvest the agave by hand and machete before taking it to be distilled in Oaxaca.
The agave piña are roasted in a traditional horno (an earthen pit lined with river stones and wood made from certified sustainable wood farmers) in a process that takes between five and seven days.
Once cooked and the sugars in the plant released, the agave is crushed to traditional Artisanal standards by a horse-drawn tahona (large volcanic mill stone). The sugar juice and leftover fibres produced are placed into pine vats where natural fermentation takes place over seven-ten days. The liquid is then double-distilled. To ensure Ilegal’s flavour profile is very light on smoke, the mezcaleros never cook and distil at the same time in order to avoid contaminating the distillate.
The Joven (unaged mezcal) is bottled as is, or put into medium-toast American Oak barrels to make the Reposado or ex-Bourbon casks for the Añejo. Finally, each bottle is hand-corked, labelled, numbered and wax-sealed, giving them a clandestine appeal that nods at the company’s beginnings.
Tasting Notes: Ilegal Mezcal
An unaged mezcal made using 100% Espadin agave.
Roasted Agave, eucalyptus, with some smoke like ends of cold bonfire.
Pleasant and easy drinking with gentle smoke and light tongue coating. This is a classic beginner’s mezcal to get someone into the category through cocktails.
Great for cocktails. Adds a gentle classic mezcal taste without too much smoke. Use in drinks like a Tommy’s Margarita or Bloody Maria. If you want your drink made for you, head down to Coupette for a delicious Punk cocktail made by the award-winning team of bartenders.
Ilegal Joven has here been taken and aged for four months in medium-charred American Oak 200 litre barrels.
Sweeter vegetal smoke but quite light aroma. Dried wood, sandalwood almost.
Not overly exciting on the palate but very smooth. Some sweetness but little body or complexity of flavours. End is perfumed woody dryness. Again, good for a beginner venturing into aged mezcal with trepidation.
Cocktails needing a bit more woodiness.
This Añejo has been made by ageing Ilegal Joven for a longer period of 13-months, this time in ex-Bourbon casks for a punchier flavour.
Much more on the nose than the other two. Here we get a heady combination of Cola, menthol, eucalyptus, vanilla, cinnamon, butterscotch, Jamaican rum cake and peated barley.
Wonderfully dynamic on the palate. Full, thick, robing butterscotch sweetness oozes over wood, cinnamon, vanilla, Cola, cloves and nutmeg. Smoke is an afterthought and comes creeping through the delightfully bitter and green vegetal qualities of this Añejo.