The Stranger-Than-Fiction Origin Story Behind One of the Coolest Mezcal Brands on the Scene

by Abby Schreiber
The door (beneath "2 Shot Minimum!!" sign) to the mezcal bar inside Café No Sé. (Photo by Aram)

Should you ever find yourself in Guatemala, be sure to make your way to Antigua, a beautiful colonial-era town an hour or so outside of Guatemala City full of stunning Spanish Baroque architecture, restaurants, shops and bars. And, should you find yourself in Antigua, be sure to make your way to Café No Sé, a speakeasy-cum-mezcal bar-cum bookstore-cum live music venue started by American ex-pat John Rexer in "2003 ish maybe 2002" (his and his team's words) and the home of Ilegal mezcal, a boutique mezcal brand that's quickly making a name for itself in the States as the Mexican spirit gains ground on its more popular tequila cousin. Along with a handful of musicians, bartenders and hospitality industry folk, I had the chance to hang out with the Ilegal team and visit No Sé and sample the smoky mezcal for myself.

The bar, which boasts live music every single night, is perpetually low-lit, giving off debauched nighttime vibes even when it opens at "2PM(ish)" in the afternoon. Off to the side of the main bar is the mezcal bar (which serves the spirit exclusively so don't bother asking for a gin and tonic), accessible only by ducking through a low doorway. In there, you'll find bartenders doling out shots (and throwing back a few themselves) and ex-pats and locals hanging out, playing dice and going back-and-forth between the bar and the main room to catch the music sets. It can feel there like everyone's a character and everyone's got a story to tell about their own reasons for winding up in Antigua -- the perfect setting to forget your day jobs, your relationships and your stresses. Seeing how both No Sé and Ilegal thrive, it's easy to assume that their symbiotic relationship is the kind of thing that was carefully planned, launched and managed. That was...not exactly the case. After spending time with Rexer and talking to him more in a follow-up interview, I learned the strange true story behind how his popular hang-out spot and well-loved mezcal came to be and the reason behind Ilegal's name.

John Rexer (Photo by Herminio Torres)

First things first, what prompted you to leave the States and how did you choose Antigua, Guatemala as a place to live in particular? 

I've always been a bit of a nomad and always loved Latin America. In 2002, I decided I wanted be on the outside looking in. So, with no particular destination in mind, I went to Mexico and bussed around the country. I ended up in Guatemala quite by mistake. I needed to extend my Mexican visa, so I traveled across the border and fell in love with Lago Atitlan and later Antigua.

Tell us about the origins of No Sé.

No Sé I think had been in my subconscious. It came about pretty randomly. I landed in Antigua broke, and one afternoon there was a vicious downpour of rain. I was  a bit drunk and thoroughly drenched. As I walked down the cobbled street I saw a sign on a door that said 'for rent.' I figured, what the hell, maybe I can get out of the rain. I knocked on the door and was greeted by an elderly man. He walked me through the building showing it to me as though I was a prospective tenant. When he asked me what I was thinking of putting in the space I heard come from my lips, "Well, over here I think I would put a bar, and there maybe we'd serve coffee and drinks, and over there maybe a bookstore, and in the front I was thinking of live music." I just said it and all of a sudden it dawned on me I'm renting a place, 1-2-3.

I could see it all very clearly. These were things I kind of wanted ever since I was very young. And then I thought, What am I saying, I know no one in this town and I have $400 to my name. Impulsively I shook the man's hand and said I'd rent it, and somehow in my drunkenness I managed to negotiate 2 months free rent.

Pouring Ilegal mezcal shots at Café No Sé. (Photo by Aram)

What was the bar like when you first opened?
 
For the first 6 months we operated as a real speakeasy, not out of style or fashion, but out of necessity. I had no money for licenses, a sign, or really anything else.The only cups I had were coffee cups, so we served drinks in them. I built the bar from scraps of wood and metal that were in a pile out back. The light shades we made from used sand paper. I'd close the bar and sleep on the benches in the front room.
 
We had live music every night for the first year. I always dreamt of having a small live music venue. It was all very word-of-mouth -- musicians just showed up: blues musicians, jazz musicians, latin, a kid with bagpipes, famous classical musicians, a Mexican opera singer, a beautiful artist and friend named Lavon who played an upright bass. The place from the outset attracted the most amazing musicians and storied characters. Over time, I got the place papered up and legal and by about the fifth year in, it began to feel like the bar would be around forever. It kind of took on a life of its own.

A bottle of Ilegal mezcal. (Photo by Aram)

When we had the chance to meet in Antigua, you shared a very interesting story about disguising yourself as a priest and illegally smuggle mezcal over the border from Mexico to Guatemala. Can you share more about that story?

Let's not say illegally. I prefer to say I was a bar owner who had a supply problem and got a bit creative. I have a lot of bad ideas and when I've been drinking they seem like great ideas and I do them. Not always the wisest option. The sign outside the office door to my bar reads 'Bad Idea Factory.' So yeah, one day, very early on, I was trying to bring 60 bottles or so across the border under a bus with a friend of mine, and I dressed up like a priest.

It happened like this: My friend is a painter and a musician and a drinker. He's a romantic mad man who looks like a cross between Salvador Dali, Pepe Le Pew and Zorro. He has a pencil mustache twisted at the ends and slicked-back hair. He also has a predilection for porno, which I was unaware of until the day in question. Anyway, we had managed to get the mezcal as far as Tapachula, but now the trick was to get it out of Mexico. It was early in the morning and we had just taken an 11-hour bus ride from Oaxaca. During that ride my friend had imbibed a bit, say a bottle or so of good mezcal. He was a bit sloppy. So I had a drunken Zorro on my hands as my partner in crime transporting mezcal. I was kind of fucked, in other words. We also needed to buy some duffel bags to put the mezcal in and some cheap shirts and rags to wrap around the bottles. So at 7 a.m. we went to the market and bought bags. While there we came across a priest's shirt hanging amidst the used clothing for sale. It's a long story, but to cut to the chase my friend encouraged me to buy the shirt and dress as a priest when crossing the border. The more I thought about it the more it seemed like a good idea. I figured if I got questioned at the border and asked what was in my bags I'd just smile and say "regalos para mis amigos y libros para los niños," which means "gifts for my friends and books for the children."

Leaving Mexico was not a problem, but on the Guatemalan side, things went a bit sideways. My friend, drunk off his ass, looking like Zorro, passed though no problem. I, on the other hand, was stopped. Probably because I had so many duffel bags. The immigration official said, "Padre, que tiene en sus maletas?" ("What do you have in your bags?") I responded with, "Regalos para mis amigos y libros para los niños." He stared me down and said, "Abra su maleta." ("Open your bag.") I opened the bag he was pointing at figuring I'd have no real problem as we stuffed the bags with a lot of clothing and books at the top. Unfortunately, my friend had packed this bag and had placed on top some pretty hardcore porn that he had purchased in Mexico. Actually it was not pretty hardcore it was very hardcore. The official was shocked -- his jaw literally dropped. My legs started shaking and I felt sweat pour down my back. "Que es eso?" ("What is this?"), the Official asked. I repeated, "Regalos para mis amigos y libros para los niños," and then I realized the absurdity of it. I just said the porno was gifts for my friends and books for the children.The official just looked at me. There was this long pause where we looked at each other.  "Esta bien?" I asked. He stared at me for another second and said very slowly, "Esta bien, Padre. Esta bien. Pasale. Pasale." He waved me on.

A live performance at No Sé. (Photo by Aram)

When and how did you make the jump from illegal importation to legal? Was that difficult to negotiate/navigate?

We made the jump in about 2005 or 2006. First we had to find mezcal producers who were certified by the Mexican Government for export. Back when we started those were few and far between. We also had to find certified producers whose mezcal we loved and wanted to work with for a long time. There is a bit of a learning curve in importing and exporting booze. There is a minefield of bureaucracy that will test your resolve. It's not difficult per se, but going legit certainly took some of the romance out of it.

How did you find your mezcal producers in Oaxaca in the first place?

I spent a good deal of time in Oaxaca in the 1990s and knew of a number of regions where you could find mezcal. Initially it was hopping in a pickup and driving out to a palenque and getting to know the producers and taste their mezcal.
 
But, once we decided to actually create a brand, we then developed a number of criterias for the brand. We'd only work with producers who made mezcal in a traditional fashion, who paid their employees well, who were environmentally conscious and also adaptative, who were fun to work with, and, most importantly, we had to love the mezcal. So it was a process of getting to know the terrain, building friendships and working together to see if we had the same vision.

Can you share more information about the different varieties of Ilegal mezcal you make?

Mezcal is about variety. There are upwards of 40 different kinds of agave that you can work with to make mezcal and each has a distinct taste and each distiller has a distinct production style. With Ilegal we have joven, reposado, and añejo. They are all made with the espadin agave, which is a cultivated agave. They all are agave-forward, which means you get the taste of agave first and everything else is secondary. They are all light smoke mezcals for the same reason.
 
The joven is unaged and the espadin flavor is dominant with notes of pepper and apple. The reposado is aged in American Oak for four months and has beautiful notes of toffee and bitter orange and vanilla. The añejo is aged for 14 months in American oak and French oak, and has notes of maple, clove and dark chocolate.

The sign outside No Sé. (Photo by Aram)

Where would you like to see the brand heading in the next 10 years?

In 10 years I'd like to see that Ilegal, as well as other mezcals, have established the category outside of Mexico, and that more people come to know this beautiful spirit. I'd like to see that we've done things in such a way that we did it right, having built in practices for sustainability and caring for the environment. I'd like to see the brand remain connected to music and small music venues, because it's in the small places that the really great stuff happens, and where people take risks. I'd like to see Ilegal fueling more of that good risk.

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