Monday, June 28, 2010
Ilegal Mezcal recently became available in California and to celebrate and spread the word, the brand which launched in 2007 sent Stephen Myers, their Global Brand Ambassador, on tour to talk about mezcal and about the Ilegal brand in particular.
Last week a crowd of mezcal lovers filled Las Perlas, the mezcal focused bar on East 6th Street in downtown LA, to hear a presentation by Myers (pictured at left). The attendees included Bricia Lopez, the legendary mezcal enthusiast who has cocktails named after her at three different bars, as well as local bloggers such as ThirstyinLA, MicroLiquor, StreetGourmetLA, FoodGPS, and Glutster among others. Myers, a charming Australian bartender, gave a talk about how he and John Rexer founded Ilegal Mezcal when they were operating a bar in Guatemela and their customers were enthusiastic about the mezcal that they were smuggling across the border from Mexico. You may be wondering why an Aussie was lecturing a bunch of Americans about mezcal. Myers was traveling across Latin America and took a bartending job at Cafe No Se in Antigua, Guatamela working for Rexer, to make money. After several years in Guatemala serving a growing demand for mezcal among the international visitors to their bar, Myers and Rexer decided to create their own brand of mezcal.
Ilegal Mezcal is an artisinal mezcal, made in small quantities, in the village of Tlacolula, outside of Oaxaca. Myers said that almost all mezcals are single village and small production products, in contrast to the mass produced tequila which dominates the export market for agave liquor. Mezcal like tequila is made from the agave plant (although unlike tequila is not necessarily from the blue agave). The heart of the plant is baked in earthen pit ovens and then distilled and mezcals are 100% agave and fermented in oak vats. As a small batch product, there is significantly greater variation in the end product than in the more mass produced tequilas.
Ilegal Mezcal is distilled twice and filtered once. The line includes 3 variations that I got to sample: Joven (unaged), Reposado (aged five months), and Anejo (aged for three years). The Joven has chocolate and grapefruit notes in the flavor. The Reposado was smokier and had more heft than the Joven with a medium smoke and pear flavor. The Anejo is aged three years in American and French oak. It is smooth but smoky with some caramel. My preference, and that of several other attendees was for the Reposado, which had a great balance without being overwhelmed by smokiness.
Due to its name, Ilegal Mezcal went through a struggle with the US government in order to use the Ilegal brand name and its preferred packaging. Despite the fact that the government of Mexico had already approved it for export, the TTB, the US government agency which must approve liquor labels in the US refused to allow them to use their name because it might confuse consumers who would think the product was illegal. After much research the partners were able to show that other brands with similar names were permitted and the agency relented. Fortunately for US mezcal aficionados, Ilegal Mezcal is now legal and available on the West Coast as well as its initial launch market of New York.
Here in Los Angeles, Las Perlas and the Tar Pit Bar both carry the range of Ilegal products. Although Las Perlas has a variety of mezcal cocktails, I recommend drinking the Ilegal Mezcal neat, particularly the Reposado. The only thing criminal about this product is that we had to wait so long to get it.