Forbes: What does “success” for Ilegal look like to you?
John Rexer: “Success is seeing Ilegal on shelves all around the world. But that has to also come with a Oaxaca that benefits from the success. Ilegal starts in Oaxaca, a place I fell in love with many decades ago, a place of stunning natural beauty, but also all the problems facing our modern world. The success of our business must contribute to what our distiller partners in Oaxaca hope for their community, which includes better jobs, a cleaner environment, and preservation of their Zapotec culture. We have already made an impact, but there is still a long way to go.”
We’re all visiting Palenque Mal de Amor in Santiago Matatlán, a town in Oaxaca dubbed the “world capital of mezcal,” to learn about the the magic of the spirit right at its source, particularly the palenque’s work as the chief distillery partner for Ilegal Mezcal.
While I’m focused on absorbing the ins and outs of mezcal production, the band is more attuned to soaking up the vibes while preparing to head on stage the next night at Bar Ilegal in Oaxaca City. It’s the launch party for the 2023 Bar Ilegal Tour, with the mezcal brand celebrating two decades of history in its original home, Café No Sé in Antigua, Guatemala. SUSU will bring the party, Ilegal will bring the drinks and tattoo artists will be busy buzzing free tats in the back during the course of a three-country, eight-stop tour between April and December.
Think of this enjoyable sipper as a mezcal for the smoky Scotch set. The amber hue and mellow caramel aroma leads into a rich caramel and toffee palate. The complex finish offers plenty of campfire smoke, plus cacao nib, clove and burnt orange peel.
“Seven years ago, John was having a conversation about the history of aged mezcal and he had the idea,” Ilegal global brand ambassador Gilbert Marquez tells Men’s Journal. “He spoke to our master distiller and asked him to set aside some mezcal for a very special edition, and that’s where the 7-Year Añejo was born.” According to Marquez, the long aging process has imbued the spirit with some sweet notes that are reminiscent of cognac, but the whole point was to never lose the “ripe espadin agave” notes that are inherent to the spirit.
Barrel aging isn’t a common practice among modern mezcal producers. But the latest limited release from Ilegal might persuade more of them to consider the cask. To make it, the palenque (distillery) in Tlacolula took its herbal-forward agave spirit and matured it for seven years in French oak—35 barrels’ worth of liquid in total. It’s woven with threads of roasted pineapple and chocolate-covered fig, and maintains a vegetal, eucalyptus-like undertone at its core.
Why John Rexer Built Ilegal Mezcal to Be More Than Just a Sustainable Spirit Brand — It’s a ‘Positive Force’
What sets Ilegal apart? Its commitment to sustainability and social justice. And the proof is in the numbers: the brand has emerged as the number two mezcal by volume and the first by brand recognition in the U.S. — and it has achieved this growth without sacrificing its core values.
For Rexer, sustainability and ethical production have been essential from the beginning. He fell in love with Oaxaca’s beauty and the communities that make mezcal, and he wanted to create a positive impact. Ilegal’s commitment to preserving and fostering biodiversity and economic sustainability has been part of the brand’s DNA from the start. Ilegal only uses 100 percent sustainable Espadín agave in its mezcal.
Clearly a special occasion sort of spirit—kept under black wax-dipped cork—it can hardly be seen as a coincidence that it dropped just before the holiday season. And yes, it will make a great holiday dram for the agave-lovers in your gift-giving circle. But given the level of craftsmanship involved, the $175 asking price could actually be read as a bargain.
“We measure success at Ilegal not just by cases sold, but also by our partners and environmental initiatives we can enact,” said founder John Rexer.
The new bottles will be made by family-run business Fusion y Formas, which recycles 10,000 tons of glass annually at its facility in Jalisco, Mexico. “We share the same vision with Fusion y Formas to build sustainably and scale responsibly, while maintaining quality above all else,” Rexer added.
Ilegal Mezcal Joven has been awarded Double Platinum in the ASCoT Awards, blind-tasted and scored for appearance, aroma, taste, and finish.
Double Platinum: Outstanding, earns top marks from all judges. Highest award level
Tasting Notes: “I’ll be finding out what this one is after the awards are revealed; I can really get behind this joven!”
#1. Ilegal Mezcal Añejo
Looking to sample an aged mezcal? Go for this Ilegal Añejo. And if you’re curious about the brand’s name, there’s a good story. The founder of Ilegal, John Rexer, used to smuggle mezcal from Mexico to his Bar, Café No Sé, in Antigua. After realizing how good the stuff was, Rexer went legit with the foundation of Ilegal in 2006.