How Ilegal Mezcal Is Fighting Against Trump
In the summer of 2015, in response to Trump calling all Mexicans “rapists and criminals,” John Rexer conceived of a guerrilla marketing campaign with the message “Donald Eres Un Pendejo"—as in, “Donald You’re An Asshole.” The American ex-pat and bar-owner wanted to promote his small batch mezcal brand, Ilegal, while expressing vehement opposition to Trump’s racist and xenophobic campaign. Soon, stenciled images with the message cropped up on the streets of New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Oaxaca, and Mexico City. While Rexer once sourced mezcal from family distilleries in Oaxaca as a rogue venture, it has since received a major distribution deal and an investment from Bacardi.
During the Democratic National Convention his team projected “Donald Eres Un Pendejo” on City Hall, and when Trump performed on Saturday Night Live, they projected it again onto NBC’s building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Today, in solidarity with International Women’s Day, Rexer’s team is projecting “Donald Eres Un Pendejo” near Trump Tower in Columbus Circle and on buildings around Union Square. We talked to Rexer about smuggling mezcal across the border in Ilegal’s early days and what it means for a liquor company to take a political stance.
Extra Crispy: What is Ilegal’s origin story? How did you smuggle mezcal into Guatemala from Mexico in the early days?
John Rexer: In 2003 and 2004, mezcal wasn’t a product certified or legal for export. One of the things I wanted badly in my bar in Antigua was mezcal, and nobody really knows mezcal in Guatemala. I started going up to Mexico and bringing down mezcal in small quantities from little farms all over Oaxaca. I would take 24 to 30-hour bus trips and bring them back in gas cans and used Jack Daniels bottles stuffed into duffle bags.
What is the border between Mexico and Guatemala like?
If you think of the most corrupt bordertown you’ve ever seen in a movie and multiply it by ten, that’s the border between Guatemala and Mexico. The borders are very porous. It’s like the wild west. You can take 20 or 30 liters across the border on a bus without much difficulty.
Is the mezcal still made in Oaxaca? How long have you been importing it legally now?
We’ve been very, very legal for going on 10 years. By law, mezcal has to be made in Mexico and bottled at origin. In 2005 we came upon one producer who we especially liked—his style of mezcal, his philosophy—so we geared up for legally exporting his batches. Interestingly enough, some of the new distillers we’re working with came into the US illegally as teenagers, worked for 15 or so years in the States, and then came back home to start up family distilleries in Oaxaca.
Can you tell me about the “Donald Eres Un Pendejo” campaign? How did you come up with the message?
I was having brunch in NY and got talking to the waiter who happened to be from Puebla, Mexico. I told him how much I loved Puebla, the food, the town, and that I had lived there back in 1999. I told him that I now spend a great deal of time in Oaxaca and that Mexico was like a second home. He responded by saying, "It's good to know that everyone is not like Donald." I could tell he was really hurt. I told him, “no, most people don't think like Trump.” He then said, "Donald es un pendejo." I scribbled that on a napkin. The next day I pulled the napkin out of my pocket and thought this kind of sums it up, and it's the feeling a lot of us have, and especially those insulted by Trump’s racist statements. So I thought, why don't we voice that message as loud as we can? I changed the "es" to "eres" to give the message a little more force and make it more direct.
So I talked to my team and in an hour or so we came up with a Oaxacan-style street art piece with a stencil of Trump’s face. We called the printer, hit the streets, and put the posters up ourselves. We picked places in Manhattan where we thought it would be visible and resonate. The first round was a little haphazard but very immediate.
Are there “Donald Eres Un Pendejo” posters in Oaxaca?
Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. We started postering in New York and the next thing you know we started getting calls from people that we work with in Oaxaca, from the guys at the distilleries that make the mezcal—across the board, they wanted to wear the shirts and put up the posters. You can go into so many cantinas now in Oaxaca and see the anti-Trump posters and people wearing the shirts, but not just in Oaxaca. Also in Mexico City, Sonora and Villahermosa, Tabasco.
What was you and your team’s reaction to Trump’s announcement that he will build a wall between the US and Mexico? Do you have other campaigns in the works that will take on the wall?
Any campaign that we come up with is spontaneous and not overly thought out. Whatever we do, I want to maintain a degree of sense of humor. Even though “Donald eres un pendejo” is angry and in your face, it also has a degree of humor to it. With regard to the wall and with regard to a border tax, one thing that a lot of people understand is that all of this really, really affects people in Mexico. And it’s very dark. Since my company began, the peso has crashed, there’s inflation in Mexico, and people have less money and things cost more. This really hurts people. It’s more than counter-productive to Trump’s mission of keeping people out of the US.
Has being so vocally anti-Trump campaign put you or your employees at risk? Have you been targeted by any Trump supporters with threats?
Yes. Well, not individually, but we’ve definitely been told on social media and in person, “hey I’ll never drink your booze because of the positions you take,” or “who do you think you are and what right do companies have to make this kind of stance.” And, you know, I don't care if they don’t drink our booze. I’m not here to please everybody. Trying to please everyone is futile and boring. I'd rather make a little noise or give people a chuckle. “You should try and lighten up,” is usually my response. “Have a couple shots and lighten up.”
And then we've also had people who want to see our brand grow say, “you know you’re never going to be a big brand if you take these kinds of stances” and I’ll tell them, “this is not just about selling booze.” We’re not here to be soft and middle of the road. It’s not who we are as people, it’s not how this all started.
As a brand, particularly as an alcohol brand, isn’t it a bit unconventional to take on such a firm political stance?
Brands and companies are made up of people. The point of view of those people will permeate the brand in one way or the other. It is best to know who you are and what you stand for, and to let that be the energy behind everything you do. I'd be hard-pressed to hold back the passions of my crew.
All the things you are not supposed to bring up in polite company—politics, religion, sex—are game in a bar setting, so there is some loose logic for a liquor company taking a political stance and expressing an opinion. In our case some issues hit home. When they do, it’s very visceral and we respond quickly out of indignation. We work with Mexicans on both sides of the border and felt we could not sit on the sidelines given Trump’s remarks.
Obviously this is marketing for us, but I really believe that you don't just suddenly throw away your ideals when you create a business, because they reflect the ideals you have as a person.
You produce the mezcal in three expressions. I’m curious what makes these distinct from each other?
Joven, meaning young, is a mezcal that has not been aged at all. Some people consider it to be the most pure expression because you’re really tasting pure agave. Our Reposado, meaning rested, is aged for four months in new American oak barrels, and picks up some beautiful vanillas and citrus. Our Añejo, meaning aged or old, is aged for about 13 months in a combination of American oak and used whiskey barrels. You get some richer, more caramelized flavors—some burnt orange and a richer vanilla.