Based in Tribeca: Ilegal Mezcal

Ilegal isn’t just an edgy, catchy name: Ilegal Mezcal‘s founders, John Rexer and Stephen Myers, used to smuggle the alcohol from Mexico into Guatemala. “One time John even dressed up as a priest,” says Myers (right), who worked at Rexer’s bar, Café No Sé. But the name also relates to mezcal’s heritage. When Spaniards were running Mexico, explains Myers, they first banned mezcal, then gave out licenses to the likes of José Cuervo and Sauza—”but in the southern part of the country, mezcal was like moonshine.”

More patrons of Café No Sé were drinking mezcal than tequila or rum, so the men decided to make the operation legal, as it were. They scoured Oaxaca for the right mezcalero, and began distributing Ilegal in Guatemala, followed by the world’s biggest mezcal market, the U.S. Naturally, they established their U.S. headquarters in Tribeca—a loft at 1 Worth. (It’s very much a live/work situation: Myers and Ilegal sidekick—that’s his title—Fred Antonacci sleep there, too.) “My business partner’s brother lives nearby,” says Myers. “And we have quite a few accounts down here.”

The major difference between mezcal and tequila—tequila is a subset of mezcal—is that tequila gets steamed, while mezcal is buried and smoked. “Each town or village will do it differently,” says Myers. “It’s like amari in Italy.” To some folks, mezcal undoubtedly brings to mind debates over who’s going to eat the worm lurking at the bottom of the bottle, but that’s not what Ilegal is going for. “We’re doing individually numbered and signed bottles, with three agings—joven, reposado, and añejo. No one else is doing that right now.” Prices tend to be around $55, $65, and $110, respectively.

They’re planning on having tastings and other small private events at 1 Worth, but in the meantime you can pick up a bottle at Hudson Wine & Spirits, or order Ilegal at Locanda Verde, Ward III, Pelea Mexicana, Macao Trading Co., Estancia 460, and Papatzul. “Ward III does some amazing cocktails with mezcal,” says Myers.

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Matt Bernson



  1. in fact, the main differences between tequila and mezcal are not the methods of softening to prepare for extraction of sugars and liquid (as plenty of mezcals are steamed), but it is the type of agave as well as the location in which the agaves are harvested and distilled, an appellation or law. tequila is required to be from sevaral growing districts within mexico (the largest being jalisco). mezcal, in theory older in origen, was indeed usually smoked, but this is due to more simplistic technologies. tequila/mezcal may also be shredded and pressed to extract juice.

  2. I truly like mezcal. The way I like to drink it is straight in glass shots and in slow sips. I just tried a couple of days ago. I don’t have a preference for a brand specifically, but what I would like is for more people in NYC begin to drink it more often. I really hope that 2011 can become the year of mezcal!