—story by Bianca Betancourt
Every drink has a story, and there’s a special drink that defines the most memorable moments of our lives.
There’s the obvious pairings, like Smirnoff Ices at early high school parties, PBR’s in college , wine for ladies night and champagne for celebrations. But somewhere in between those cliches and many nights of trial and error (with hangovers to match) you find a drink, or even a specific booze that really allows you to see more than what you ever expected.
For some it’s a smooth whiskey, others maybe a simple vodka does the trick. For me, it was mezcal and all of it’s smoky complexities that lured me in.
Ilegal Mezcal, an indie artisan branch of the quickly crowding mezcal world, is one of the few leading standouts.
The growing demand for the cousin of tequila has spiked production—and fast—but rushing the mezcal making process often leads to a flat, one dimensional sipping experience that’s crowded the shelf space of too many bars. An initial adjective that the beginner to mezcal will use to describe the booze will almost always be “smoky”—due to the literal fire and wood process used to prepare the maguey plant that births the mezcal. Fewer people know however, that mezcal can be so much more than its signature synonym—it can be smooth, it can be buttery, it can be soothing and most of all, it can be an experience.
An experience is exactly what inspired Ilegal’s conception: founder John Rexer fell in love with the liquor during one of eventually countless trips to Oaxaca, Mexico, the drink’s origin and at first, the only place one could enjoy the exclusivity and excitement of mezcal–only bars. His infatuation with mezcal compelled him to ilegally smuggle batches of the booze into Antigua, Guatemala where he eventually opened the now legendary town dive bar, Café No Sé.
Antigua in itself, a tourist town noted for it’s pastel painted streets, multiple century old ruins and bordering volcanos, is the ultimate destination for American and European expats, musicians, artists and alcoholics. Consider Café No Sé it’s designated watering hole—self proclaimed misfits alike come together and find each other within the tightly enclosed walls of this gem of a bar.
When you first walk in the walls are covered in memorable guest graffiti, stickers and art and necessary signs such as “No WIFI: Talk to Each Other” (which I’m ashamed is the first thing I tried looking for once arriving) and “Donald Eres Un Pendejo”—the guerilla marketing slogan that cemented their no fucks given brand identity.
No matter what time of the day or week, the bar will eventually always finds itself to be packed to the brim with people of all colors, speaking different languages from various backgrounds and walks of life laughing, conversing and dancing along to it’s nightly live music. It’s seemingly free of the drama that popular bars often inherently bring—and by this I mean mostly drunk girls crying—and it instead embodies the laissez faire attitude towards life that modern Antigua has adopted. And no matter mixed, straight or from the bottle itself, everyone is drinking the same thing: mezcal.
So unlike most liquors that I’ve often turned to in times of exhaustion—of life, of work, of people—I save sips of Ilegal for warmer memories that give me the chance to go back: to 70 degree weather, to the sound of bellowing laughter and strumming guitars, to culture and camaraderie.
Learn more about Ilegal at ilegalmezcal.com.