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17 of the Best Mezcals to Try This Year

“First on my list, mostly because of their amazing political sticker game and the fact that they always stay true to their beliefs and their vision,” Hawkins says. “I have often dreamt of venturing to Café No Sé in Guatemala (an all-Ilegal bar) because it looks like a bar ripe with culture and beauty. It also looks like one hell of a good time. Handcrafted by a bunch of artists and musicians in Antigua, the mezcal is a beautiful smoky, vegetal, delicious piece of agave.”

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Six of the Best Mezcals Under $50, Tasted and Ranked

Press - Vinepair

Our favorite spirit for the money has a clean, vegetal nose and bright, fruity palate. The finish is smoky and long, “but in an enjoyable way,” a taster said. Smooth and elegant, this is an excellent sipper, and it plays well in cocktails as well. We would happily serve it with a splash of citrus on ice at a party, mix it into a Paloma, or sip it neat on the sofa with a good book (or, say, Twitter on a slow news day).

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Kaylan Rexer is Redefining Drinking Responsibly

Among the emerging masses of trailblazing power women defying odds in their respective male-dominated industries is Kaylan Rexer, bad ass brand director of Ilegal Mezcal. Ilegal is a liquor company that vends not only the secret, smoky spirit that is mezcal, but also a refreshing new mindset on consumer industries. They are fostering a new conversation between alcohol and politics, one that is finally clear of objectifying ad campaigns and controversial lawsuits. Rexer, as mastermind behind Ilegal’s voice is ironically soft spoken in her words, but loud and clear in her actions.

Ilegal’s history is rich in authenticity and transparent in intentions, cut from the same cloth as Rexer’s. Sitting in the den of a cozy Deer Mountain Inn by the Catskills, where Ilegal hosted an installment of their summer music series, Rexer disclosed to me their humble journey which accidentally started when her uncle began smuggling the mezcal from Oaxaca to his bar in Guatemala. Accommodating the flooding inquiries by his international patrons about taking the underground hooch home, John Rexer had unknowingly founded what would eventually become Ilegal Mezcal–proving that its name is an honest confession to its past, while Kaylan shows also that it is a provocation to our future.

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Ilegal Mezcal’s Kaylan Rexer is Changing the Drinking Game

No one knows the bonding power of booze better than brand director of Ilegal Mezcal, Kaylan Rexer.

Her speciality is bringing people together, united under the great causes of advocacy and alcohol. Ilegal is markedly political—you’ve probably seen their street art campaigns—and strives to support everything from LGBTQ+ rights to economic stability in the lives of Oaxacan mezcal artisans. Read on to find out more about this boundary-pushing brand and how Kaylan uses her platform to speak up on issues that really matter.

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Photographer Michael Hoerner’s “Ilegal Pride” Exhibition

No image may ever be able to capture the complete sensations of NYC Pride—the ferociousness, liberated joy and unbounded togetherness—but photographer Michael Hoerner certainly comes close. In a series of vibrant images, punctuated by a large-scale, black and white piece, Hoerner taps into the raw energy of it all and documents some of the characters populating the scene. In a way, Hoerner’s work is a time capsule.

The images were taken during Pride in 2008 and yet they feel as if they were taken yesterday. Hoerner’s exhibiting the photos just blocks from where they were taken, in the old Perry Street Theater, which Ilegal Mezcal now calls home. Here, they’ve hosted a series of concerts with proceeds to benefit Planned Parenthood. And now the show “Ilegal Pride,” curated by Gramercy Park Hotel’s Rose Bar Creative Director Matthew Green and Ilegal Mezcal’s brand team leader Kaylan Rexer, stakes claim to the walls with a portion of proceeds benefitting select LGBTQ youth charities.

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Don’t Let a Little Thing Like the Law Stop You From Opening Your Dream Mezcal Bar

Mezcal in Guatemala

Even in daylight, candles are necessary at Café No Se. The bar is a bit of a vortex: a dingy-yet-charming cave with no natural light in Antigua, Guatemala. Following the path of Café No Se’s several windowless rooms and through a crawlspace door will eventually deposit the adventurer at yet another bar, where they serve only mezcal. In this room, I met with John Rexer, head honcho of not just the bar, but his own mezcal brand.

Yes, mezcal is still made in Oaxaca, Mexico, and not in Guatemala. And no, John Rexer is from neither. He’s originally from New York and migrated to Antigua around 2003, penniless and disillusioned with America and its politics after 9/11. Soon after arriving, he ducked into a closed-up doorway with a “for rent” sign during a rainstorm and subsequently found himself the new proprietor of an agave spirits bar. The only problem was that there were no agave spirits to be had in Guatemala and mezcal, Rexer’s elixir of choice, wasn’t yet legal for exportation out of Mexico.

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3. So you were creative in how you brought mezcal across the border. Do you care to elaborate?

It kind of began with us stuffing bottles into duffel 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. 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 preocupes. Yo tengo un tío. Which means: Don’t worry about it, I have an uncle.

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4. So this is how you became a bootlegger?

I would not use that term exactly. Let’s just say I was a bar owner with a supply problem. But back to the story: It turns out his uncle was part of a black market operation on the river between Mexico 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 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 and it reads “Alcaldía, Mayor’s Office.”

So this was the first big run of Ilegal. 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. When I say goods, I mean TV sets, stereos, prostitutes, car parts, gasoline, toys, animals, pharmaceuticals…you name it.

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4. (continued)

The warehouse sat right on the river’s edge and our mezcal was loaded onto an inner-tube raft with wooden slats. Traveling with me was my girlfriend who was a 6’2” blonde East German and was rather stunning. She was wearing a black hoodie and I kept telling her to hunch over and not look at anyone. Might I suggest if any of you want to engage in similar activities in a Latin country, and want to appear inconspicuous, leave your Nordic goddesses elsewhere.

The river itself is not that wide, maybe a hundred meters. Once on the other side the maras unloaded our booze into a van I had waiting. It started to rain and we were knee deep in mud moving crates of booze. The only thing you can do is move as quickly as possible, act like you know what you are doing and get the fuck out of there. There are guns everywhere and it’s not a question of if you are going to be ripped off but a question of by whom. The warehouse, by the way, got wiped out in Hurricane Stan and is no longer there.

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5. Were you ever robbed?

Yes, on several occasions. But, mostly it happened when we brought in booze legally, years later with permits, etc. The cops and border officials operate as a team. They see a truck coming across the border with things of value and they radio gangs down the road to hit you. Sometimes it is just the cops looking for a mordida (a bribe), and other times everything you have gets jacked. It’s not a joke.