Mezcal is one of those misunderstood spirits that has challenged novice drinkers for decades. Is it hallucinogenic? No. Does it have a mummified worm in the bottle? No. Is it just another kind of tequila? No.
Mezcal is the Mexican version of Scotch whiskey. It’s got a lot of smoke, which comes from the traditional roasting in clay fire pits, similar to the Scottish peat style of drying the malt. There are significant differences from tequila as well. Mezcal is made from a variety of agave called Maguey, as opposed to Blue Weber agave. Lastly, most mezcal is made in Oaxaca, rather than Jalisco, where tequila hails from. All of this adds up to a completely unique spirit.
Ilegal has an interesting origin. I’ll let John Rexer, the owner of the brand tell the story. “It began back in 2004-ish, very informally and almost by mistake. I was bringing down mezcal from Oaxaca for my bar, Café No Sé, in Antigua Guatemala, and the mezcal became popular very quickly. At the time, we were bringing down unbranded mezcal from a variety of villages in Oaxaca that included: Tlacolula, San Lorenzo, Sola De Vega, Santa Catarina Minas, Hierve el Agua, Santiago Matatlan and a few others. You see back in 2004, there were very few mezcals that were certified for export, almost none. Bringing a few bottles across the border was not such a big deal, but try getting 50, 100 or 500 bottles across and things get a bit interesting. Especially at the borders we were crossing where back then, the cops, the military, the gangs and just plain old thieves had to be eluded or navigated or co-opted, if you get my drift.
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 a 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 sometime, proposed that I buy a pallet of mezcal from him.“You like my mezcal,” he said, “And it is crazy for you to keep busing up here every other week.” 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.”
I guess that uncle worked things out, because now Ilegal is available in the U.S. for mezcal lovers to enjoy. GSN was sent a bottle of the Joven (young) for review.
Ilegal Mezcal Joven (80 proof)
Nose: A fair amount of smoke off the bat, with a underlayer of deeply rich agave.
Taste: Ultra smooth and with just the right touch of smoke. Fresh and vibrant with a lot of terroir and character. Elegant and introspective. There’s more going on here than is immediately apparent.
Finish: The fade is slightly sweet, sultry with wood smoke, and leaves you wanting more.
Overall: This is a lovely mezcal that excels at everything. Flavor, balance, distillation, mouthfeel, you name it. Mezcal lovers seek this one out!
GSN Rating: A+
For more information go to: Illegal Mezcal