I first heard about Ilegal Joven Mezcal through their work with Dewar’s and their cask finishing of Irish whiskey. I had never heard of them before this, so naturally it sparked a curiosity — I needed to track this down and see why it was such an unique product that even other companies were seeking out their used casks for adding flavors to their own spirits.
John Rexer was living in New York during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Following that event, he says that the city changed and a dark cloud descended over the once vibrant culture, and he wanted to escape. He hit the road, starting in Mexico and eventually ending up in Antigua, Guatemala in 2003. Nearly broke and desperate, he decided to open a dive bar in Antigua that featured live music and (most importantly) no televisions. The bar he founded was called Café No Sé and it sported not only a main bar with a live music stage, but also an attached mezcal bar and a bookshop. It quickly became one of the most beloved bars in the city.
Business was booming, and John needed to supply his bar with spirits. He had been bringing in unbranded mezcal from other regions, but in 2006 he decided to start his own brand specifically to stock his bar and focusing on using sustainable production methods. That brand became known as Ilegal, which is why each bottle says on the back label “Originally produced for: Café No Sé, Mezcal Bar.”
The brand remains independently owned, despite a minority ownership purchased by Bacardi in 2017.
- Learn More: What Is Mezcal?
Most people have never heard of mezcal — but they have heard of tequila, which is just a subset of mezcal with some very specific requirements. For mezcal, it really just needs to be distilled from agave plants of some kind to be considered ‘mezcal’.
In this case, Ilegal starts with a crop of sustainably grown and harvested Espadín agave plants that are roasted in brick ovens fired by sustainably harvested wood. That roasting process converts the plant material into useful sugars, which are then extracted by crushing the plants in a stone mill that is powered by an actual horse. The sugary liquid is left to naturally ferment in open pinewood vats for seven to ten days, where the natural yeast in the region is allowed to work its magic instead of using a high performing strain.
Once fermented, the liquid is distilled in batches using pot stills until it reaches the proper alcohol content level. For the joven version of the spirit, the end results are bottled immediately after production.
I love it when the design of the bottle and the labeling expands on the story of the brand itself. A number of products try to craft their branding to evoke a sense of what they want to be, not where they came from. This ain’t that, and it feels much more authentic for it.
The bottle itself is a slender, tall cylinder with a long neck and a gently rounded shoulder. The glass is clear, allowing you to see the contents and not obscuring any of the liquid inside. It’s generally a plain and unassuming design, nothing really fancy going on, just as you’d expect from a bottle of mezcal that was imported for a dive bar in Guatemala. But that extra height on the bottle (at least, compared to some other bottles) gives it just a touch of class — a little bit of style without going overboard.
The labels are relatively small and unobtrusive, avoiding getting in the way but at the same time providing the necessary information and conveying the branding further. I appreciate the visual of the folded paper and the blackened edges — but given that those elements are printed on the label, instead of actually part of the label it makes it feel a bit disingenuous. I think I would have preferred a more matte label without those elements, which would have conveyed the same notion but at a higher quality.
The bottle is capped off with a cork stopper that is sealed with green wax.
This smells simultaneously very familiar and yet a little different. The herbal agave note that you’d usually see from a tequila is there — but where a blue-agave-based spirit is somewhat sweeter and lighter, this smells more musky and smoky. It’s like I walked into my grandfather’s attic, with hints of cedar, old wood, and a bit of alcohol. Mixed in there is also some lime citrus for a bit of acidity.
That earthy trend carries over into the flavor as well. The herbal agave note resembles autumn more than spring, with the other flavors also more spice forward than you’d expect. There’s some good cinnamon and nutmeg that comes through up front, followed by some black pepper spice that adds a bit of a kick which continues well into the aftertaste.
There’s no bitterness or bite here, it’s just a damn good spicy sipping spirit.
Ice can be a bit of a challenge for spirits, often upending the balance of flavors and eliminating some of the lighter aspects. But in this case, the majority of the flavors are surprisingly unchanged. It’s just the intensity that has been altered.
The spirit isn’t as spicy as we saw before. Most of the flavors remain, but their force has been diminished. The black pepper spice is more of a supporting role here, and less like you just swallowed a whole spoonful. All in all, this holds up well on ice – and its not often I can say that about tequilas.
Continuing the trend, this is again a bit of a more earthy flavored margarita than you’d usually expect. You can absolutely taste the orange from the Cointreau and the citrus from the lime juice, but that musky autumn herbal flavor is there as well making its unique mark on this drink.
And that’s really the challenge that they’ve nailed here: how do you make something that’s delicious, but unique? And I think, in this case, they’ve miraculously done it.
This is something delicious and unique in the world of agave based spirits, which brings its own twist to the classic cocktails. Add in the story behind the brand (and a bit of favoritism for a fellow expat New Yorker) and you’ve got a solid four star spirit.
Something that I think would really elevate this to the next level is a little bit more quality and investment in the labeling. Instead of faking the age on the labels through printing on a glossy sticker, actually use some textured or aged material. I could see a bit of masking tape with the branding written on it in faux Sharpie fitting in with the rest of the story and adding to the character. It’s good now, but there’s so much potential for perfection here.
|Ilegal Joven Mezcal|
Produced By: IlegalProduction Location: Mexico
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $34.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 4/5
This certainly won’t be outlawed from my liquor cabinet.