When Donald Trump hosted Saturday Night Live in 2015, shortly after labeling Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals” on the campaign trail, some pissed-off dissidents projected his silhouette on 30 Rock alongside the words “Donald, Eres Un Pendejo.” Which loosely translates to, “Donald, you’re a butthole.”
Ilegal Mezcal, the hip liquor brand run out of an abandoned theater on Manhattan’s Perry Street, claimed responsibility for the act. They’d similarly roasted Chik-Fil-A over its founder’s homophobia, blanketing New York with posters that depicted two roosters canoodling next to the slogan: “I’d rather kiss a cock than eat your chicken.” The marketing was not your typical bust stop ad, but man, did Ilegal go viral.
Its surging social media presence caught the attention of executives at Bacardi who bought a minority stake in the company earlier this year, giving Ilegal’s mezcal national distribution for the first time (plus an influx of cash). Suddenly, Wiz Khalifa was hanging out at founder John Rexer’s bar in Guatemala, smoking blunts with his crew. The only problem? Ilegal was a boutique business selling just 6,000 cases a year. Says Rexer: “We were famous for being famous.”
It’s cool to be an agent provocateur in these turbulent times. And Rexer acknowledges that guerrilla marketing is basically the only marketing they can afford.
“The liquor business is like owning a race horse,” he says. “It’s a rich man’s game. And I’m not a rich man.” Now that he’s got the industry’s attention, there’s a more pressing question, and it’s one he admits is legitimate: “Anybody who tells you they didn’t get into this business to make money is lying. How do we scale this thing and not fuck it up?” Or, put another way, Will Ilegal Mezcal be the buzz-worthy spirits answer to Bulleit? Or, are they destined to be another small-batch hobby?
Authenticity is probably the most overused word in branding these days. But Rexer’s got it in spades. It’s a hot-ass-day in July and Rexer and I are standing in a massive agave field in Matatlan, Oaxaca—perfect rows of huge succulents set against a backdrop of blue sky and hulking mountains. He pours me a glass of Ilegal Reposado, aged in oak for something like six months, as we watch an 80-year-old man with skin like a leather saddle hack an agave plant to shreds with an axe. “You have to be careful,” Rexer tells me of harvesting the plants. “Sometimes snakes are hiding underneath.”
Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in Mexico. It also happens to be where Rexer, 57, fell in love with mescal—tequila’s smokier, hipper cousin. After graduating from Columbia University with a degree in Latin and comp lit, he embarked on what would be a peripatetic life—teaching at a midwest private school, briefly trying his hand at finance in Atlanta, then importing furniture from Mexico to New York. But after 9/11 he turned inward, decamping to Tulum, Mexico, where he rented a shack for $80 a month. “This was before Tulum was all hotels and high-rises and nonsense,” he says. “I bought a bicycle and rode to the beach and read books.” He also came to Oaxaca and drank mezcal. A lot of it.
“With good mezcal,” he says savoring a sip, “you should get a mouth full of agave, a little grassy pepper flavor, and a hint of smoke. You don’t get that burn in the back of the throat that you get with tequila.”
This was 2003, and after an aimless, wild 18 months, he crossed over into Guatemala to get his U.S. passport stamped. He had maybe $800 to his name, but he immediately fell in love with the country’s chill, creative vibe. On a whim, he bullshitted his way into a commercial lease, opening a bar called Café No Sé in a dodgy part of Antigua.
The bar, named in part after Cafe Wha in New York, quickly became something of a legendary hang, with live music 365 days a year. But Rexer had a problem: He’d imagined adding a little agave bar only to discover it was illegal to import mezcal into Guatemala. Determined to make it work, he started taking 18-hour bus rides to Oaxaca where he’d load up on hooch, smuggling it back across the border in old Jack Daniels bottles and whatever else he could get his hands on.
In a now legendary expedition, Rexer, traveling with a buddy, loaded his wares under a Greyhound-type bus and, in the hopes of avoiding suspicion, donned a priest’s shirt collar he picked up at a second-hand clothing store in Mexico. When a Guatemalan guard stopped him at the border and insisted he open his bags, Rexer panicked, saying he was merely carrying “libros para los niños y regalos para mis amigos.” Books for the children and gifts for my friends. Unconvinced, the guard pushed back, and Rexer finally unzipped one bag. Both he and the border guard were shocked to find a stack of graphic porn magazines staring back at them.
“I didn’t know my friend had a predilection for hardcore porn,” Rexer says. “The guard looks at me, I look at him, and I say ‘Esta bien?’” We good? “The guard smirked and said, ‘Esta bien padre. Pasele, pasele’.” It’s all good, father.
The smuggling thing—which inspired the name Ilegal—was unsustainable. And while Rexer worked to make importing mezcal legal, he also launched his own brand of mezcal, which he started shipping to the States in 2012. Like the billionaire John Paul De Joria before him—who founded Patrón tequila because he couldn’t get the good shit in the U.S.—Rexer’s Ilegal would be the kind of homegrown, roadside, authentic mezcal that informed his palate. He had zero experience in the byzantine liquor business, but the dude knew what he liked. And what he liked turned out to be expensive to make. Agave plants take eight years to mature, and the roots have to be ripped out of the ground by hand with a crowbar. (By contrast, sugar cane for rum can be grown in six months and whole fields are harvested with a thrasher in just a couple of hours.) Still, it’s worth the wait.
Rexer didn’t set out to create a so-called “activist brand.” But when Trump called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “criminals,” he took it personally. Because he’d been in business with these people for years. Touring the Mal de Amor production facility in Oaxaca—a low-tech, authentic affair—I meet Armando Cortez, one of the mescaleros brewing for Ilegal, and he tells me how he’d crossed into the States illegally at age 12 because he was desperate for work. Cortez would stay for 17 years, eventually becoming a bartender in southern California. He’d probably still be there right now. Except that, in a twist even Trump would appreciate, after watching drunk, rich gringos in L.A. dropping $15-a-shot for mezcal made in his hometown, he looked around and thought: “What the fuck am I doing here?” Armando crossed back into Mexico to work his father’s land in Matatlan where, not surprisingly, the “Donald, Eres Un Pendejo” art has gone viral, popping up on Facebook and Instragram and on signs wheat-pasted across town. The words are a rallying cry for Armando—for a million reasons and also one: “We’re illegal,” he tells me. “Illegal is our family.”
His mezcal is on the menu at the Boom Boom Room in New York and at Salazar, the cool-kid taco joint on the east side of L.A., but Rexer is relying on Bacardi’s distribution arm to increase the brand’s reach. He hopes to double sales this year, from 6,000 cases to closer to 13,000—a far cry from the 30,000-case benchmark he feels is necessary to solidify a spot on liquor shelves, but a major leap forward for sure. To his relief, Bacardi has (so far) kept their promise to remain hands-off when it comes to Ilegal’s political messaging. “It’s a very hands off relationship. They said, We’re here if you need us.”
For his part, Rexer, who lives primarily on a coffee plantation in Guatemala, hopes Ilegal will continue a dialogue. “People say, ‘Don’t talk about politics at a bar.’ I’m like, Fuck yeah. This is a place to engage. In this day and age, we’re all illegal in some way.”