Unmasking a bootlegger: Stephen Myers of Ilegal Mezcal

This interview was first published on the excellent website, Bitters&Twisted.com which you should visit at your earliest convenience. 

Sometimes it seems like the drinks industry has become a little bit formulaic, especially when it comes to spirit brands.

New Gins come to market shouting about their unique botanical, new Whiskies find a story to make up for their lack of heritage, Vodkas find a funky spelling for their newest flavour… it’s all a bit predictable all too often.

Of course there are exceptions; not everyone follows the usual routine, but there are too few passionate individuals who find pioneering ways to launch something new to market. So when a couple of years ago I was told by a friend that I really needed to meet some guy named Stephen and try his new Mezcal, I’ll admit I was expecting a run of the mill story behind his brand.

Unfortunately for me I missed that chance two years ago in New York, but I was lucky enough to get a sip of his Ilegal Mezcal and thought ‘well at least it’s good liquid’.

Fast forward to July this year and you’d find me stood outside a firing range in New Orleans drinking Mezcal from a bottle with the man behind the brand, Stephen Myers.

The first thing to mention is that Stephen is one hell of a nice guy, the second is that his Mezcals are fantastic, and the third is that there’s a real story behind the liquid.

You see Stephen is a modern day bootlegger, a passionate advocate of his category of spirits, and a dangerous man to drink with…

My first question to him was ‘when are we finally going to get Ilegal in the UK?’, and despite his promise that it was coming soon, that became the standard question every time I talked to him.

Well true to his word Ilegal is now available in the UK, something I’m pretty excited about, and so now seems like a good time to tell you the story of how this brand came about in the first place. Anyone Googling the brand name will quickly find the story, but I wanted to share it the way I heard about it, from the man himself, so below you’ll find an interview cobbled together over a few beers in Paris, a chat in New Orleans and a lot of emailing back and forth.

Before I get too far into that though, just let me say that this is a brand that deserves to be a huge success in the UK and I hope you’ll be inspired to buy a bottle and experience it for yourself.

The Adventure Begins

DP: so for those who don’t know, what is Mezcal?

SM: well the simple way to think of it is as the cousin of Tequila. It is made using Maguay, a different type of agave from that used in tequila, and the production process is slightly different too. The agave hearts are usually roasted in a wood fired oven, which imparts a smoky quality to the spirit.

Traditionally it is distilled only once, whereas many tequilas are double distilled. Mezcal is usually produced in very small batches, and a single village in Mexico can often have as many as six or seven producers, all making very different products.

There are many Mezcals that aren’t great in terms of quality, but we’re starting to see some really good ones finally making it out of Mexico and reaching international markets. It’s an exciting time to be working in this misunderstood category.

DP: I’m guessing that being a brand owner wasn’t your plan leaving university, so how have you got to where you are?

SM: To tell you the truth it’s through a random series of events. When I left university in Australia with a degree in Agricultural Economics I landed a gig at one of the world’s largest FMGC companies.

I managed to stick it out being suited and booted for two years before that itch to head overseas became too much for me to ignore. I jumped a plane across the Pacific to Costa Rica, where I ran volunteer programs for an NGO, trading in my suit and tie for t-shirts and rubber boots in the process. When that came to an end I travelled to Europe, where I settled in Luxembourg for a while, running a pub and playing rugby and generally enjoying myself.

After two years I had the chance to return to Costa Rica working for the same NGO, but it was while brushing up on my Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala that my journey took an unusual twist. My bank card was cloned and I found myself $10,000 worse off in the process, so with a bank balance of zero I had to get a job quickly, while I sorted out the legal paperwork to get my money back. I was lucky enough to get a job at a bar I used to frequent, Café No Se, and it was here that the Mezcal-capades began.

Our Café had a backroom bar that specialized in Mezcal, and the owner, John Rexer, and myself (as well as several of our customers) would regularly travel to Oaxaca, Mexico, to buy Mezcal. We visited a lot of producers on our various trips, filling empty water bottles and plastic gerry cans as we went, and over many late night bus journeys we fleshed out the idea for our own brand. We already had the passion and sense of adventure for it and soon we’d found the producer we wanted to work with too. The picture was complete, and so we began to make Ilegal Mezcal happen.

DP: So basically you were a modern day bootlegger then?

SM: I guess you could say that. Back in the early days it was just meant to be a way to stock our own bar, but once we got serious about it we started selling to other bars in the area and selling bottles to travelers to take home. There were several near misses (most of which our parents don’t know about), and we had to grease several palms, cross rivers and even wear costumes, but that all added to the excitement of the project.

I’m not going to go into too much detail here, but I could tell you some stories; everything from disguising ourselves as priests, or using our parents as mules during border crossings, to driving like a bat out of hell when we needed to. I think some stories might be best saved for another time, over a Mezcal or three.

DP: So why Mezcal?

SM: Well obviously part of the answer is circumstance, as I mentioned, but really there was more to it for me. Even before I left Australia I had a fascination with Latin America, which is why I chose to work in Costa Rica.

For me though, Mexico was always a place that held great appeal, and this was confirmed a thousand times over the first time I crossed the bridge leading out of Guatemala and into Mexico. I swear even the air there was different. The vibrancy of colours, the people, the food and drink, everything in Oaxaca needs to be seen to be truly believed.

Oaxaca is the sort of place where you feel challenged and comfortable at the same time. The contrasts of the countryside are a living example: the green of the agave against the browns of the Tierra; they contrast and yet when seen together they are more beautiful than you can imagine. To me Mezcal is a representation of these things.

It’s not just a drink, but also something that’s woven into the fabric of society there; it’s the past the present and the future coming together. Mezcal is integral to celebrating every aspect of Oaxacan life, and I guess it really got under my skin while I was there. It also tastes really really good!

Bad Mezcal of course is like bad anything: best left well alone. On the other hand, good Mezcal is something to behold; it’s a balance of complexity, flavour and a smooth lengthy finish. To me it’s almost magical.

DP: Do you have any thoughts on how it should be served or any cocktails we should try it in?

SM: I shall defer to your superior talents when it comes to cocktails squire, but if your readers are looking for inspiration then we have a few suggestions on our website. I will say that the joven (unaged) is a fantastic addition when cooking seafood, as is the reposado with red meat. Cheese and dried fruit plates are a great conclusion to a meal accompanied by a dram or two of the reposado. The anejo is really to be savored on its own, though some quality dark chocolate is a nice accompaniment from time to time.

Personally I enjoy drinking Mezcal neat, as I know you do from our time spent in Paris earlier in the year, but some of the cocktails that bartenders around the world are making with Ilegal are simply amazing.

Bootlegger’s Mule

  • 60ml Ilegal joven
  • 1″ Section of root ginger cut into 6 chunks
  • 30ml Fresh lime juice
  • 20ml Gingerbread syrup
  • Soda water top

In a shaker, muddle the ginger root and ginger bread syrup before adding lime juice and Ilegal Mezcal. Shake quickly with cubed ice and fine strain into a tall glass filled with cubed ice. Top with soda water and a couple of dashes of Angostura bitters. Garnish with a lime wedge.

b&t says: The Ilegal joven is a beautifully lively spirit, fresh and sweet on the nose with a healthy hint of smoke. There’s an almost metallic tang on the taste buds as you sip it, with a grassy green quality to it. What we love most is that the agave isn’t lost behind the smoke; instead the other flavours play a supporting role.

This is delicious liquid that would be welcome in my shot glass any day, but is also just itching to be used in a cocktail. Our twist on the mule, with fresh ginger and gingerbread syrup, was created under the working name ‘drug mule’ to follow the Ilegal theme, but we settled for the word bootlegger as an homage to Stephen’s border crossings.

Mezcal, So Good It Should Be Ilegal

DP: So what makes Ilegal unique, other than the rather amazing story of how it came about?

SM: We have several practices that help differentiate Ilegal from other Mezcals on the market, but let me start by saying that Ilegal’s ingredients are 100% agave, Oaxacan sun and time.

We have created a very specific flavour profile for our Mezcal by working with our producer Mr. Eric Hernandez, to get the different aged expressions just the way we wanted them. Eric is a fourth generation Mezcalero and one of the founders of COMERCAM (the Mezcal equivalent of Tequila’s CRT) and its first registered producer – he has forgotten more about Mezcal than you or I will ever know.

His ability to ‘eyeball’ each step in the production process and still be correct in its execution and timing is reflective of our theme that ‘It is more Art than Science’. Each lot, with its individually numbered bottles, allows you to discover the differences from batch to batch.

The shape of our oven is slightly different to most, allowing a more consistent roast for all of the agave that is placed in it, and uses less wood to heat it. Our production methods are pretty unique and thought has gone into every step, right down to how we recycle the cooling water used whilst we are distilling the Mezcal. I think all of this is reflected in the flavours and aromas that Ilegal delivers, and we often find that people who think that they don’t like Mezcal, are won over by ours.

DP: You’re clearly passionate not only about Ilegal, but about the whole category. What are the challenges of sharing that passion with others?

SM: The Mezcal category is one of the few left, I believe, that has the potential to dramatically increase in size, not only in Mexico, but throughout the world.

There is very much a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ mentality at present, especially with more and more good quality Mezcals entering the market. Part of my role, in addition to being a brand owner is to increase the awareness and knowledge of Mezcal in general, to both trade and consumers. In addition to doing staff trainings, master classes, pairing dinners and other trade focused activity, I also devote time to classes and education seminars for consumers, focusing on explanations of the category and tastings, of course.

Ilegal is very fortunate in that we have three aged expressions. Our Joven is unaged, our Reposado is aged for four months, and the Anejo for thirteen months. This allows us to appeal to a much broader drinking demographic and pallet. For instance, we have found that people who traditionally enjoy peatier, smokier whiskies happily gravitate to our Anejo.

Forbidden Flower

  • 60ml Ilegal Reposado
  • 15ml Lillet Blanc
  • 7.5ml Bitter Truth crème de violet
  • 1 Barspoon &Jones agave
  • 1 Dash Bitter Truth lemon bitters

Stir all ingredients with plenty of cubed ice and strain into a chilled coupe before finishing it with a small orange twist.

b&t says: The repo is soft, slightly sweet and beautifully balanced. The nose offers grassy aromas as well as agave but with an earthy, almost savory note to it. The smoke is soft and understated, which lets the agave shine through as the star of the show.

There is a rich almost creamy aspect to the mouth feel and there are notes of toasted nuts before the gentle smoke comes through, lingering on the finish.

This is perfect for mixing, or just savoring it the way it comes out of the bottle. We actually found that a shot glass with three or four dashes of good crème de violet, filled with Ilegal Reposado is also pretty damned amazing… just saying.

Now That You’re Not An Outlaw…

DP: So I guess your bootlegging days are behind you, but how did you go about bringing Ilegal to a broader audience?

SM: Once Guatemala was successfully under control (relatively speaking), we cast our eyes toward ‘el Norte’. When we ‘launched’ in the US it wasn’t your typical new product launch, there was no high profile party, that’s for sure. In fact I was couch surfing for the first eighteen months I was in the US, which was not only a brilliant experience allowing me to stay with friends and meet new ones, but also reflected the hands on, intimate and personal approach we take toward to all aspects of Ilegal.

We are now available in twenty-eight states across the US. Fortunately Ilegal and its reputation has spread around the world, not least through the visitors passing through Café No Se, but also thanks to the global bartending community.

We have recently launched in the UK with Speciality Brands, and we are available in France, Norway, Belgium, Germany, Holland and Italy and soon to be in Sweden and Denmark. For those of you in the southern hemisphere you can find Ilegal in Australia and Singapore and shortly in New Zealand and Costa Rica. The Cayman Islands is the first country we’re available in, in the Caribbean.

DP: How have people taken to Ilegal?

SM: As Mezcal has slowly gained recognition around the world, Ilegal has been especially well received.

There is, of course, the ongoing education aspect; explaining to people that Mezcal doesn’t have to be smoky, it doesn’t necessarily have the worm in the bottle, nor does it have mescaline in it. Convincing and then proving to people that what they are about to drink is not the rocket fuel of their youth, is very rewarding.

Mezcal is an extremely complex drink, from the ten years of terroir that are present from the growing of the agave plant, to the timing of the harvest, the wood blend used to cook the agave, the natural fermentation process, distillation and then aging – each step adds layer upon layer of influence, to what you’ll ultimately savour and enjoy in your glass.

I’ve been amazed at how well received Ilegal has been, so it’s just a case of getting out there and putting it in front of as many people as possible now. The hands on approach that has served us well from the beginning of this journey is still serving us today, although I wear a lot les disguises these days.

El Norte Sour

  • 30ml Ilegal Anejo
  • 30ml Four Roses small batch
  • 30ml Lemon juice
  • 20ml Hibiscus syrup
  • 2 Sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 10ml Egg white

Muddle the thyme and hibiscus syrup together before adding remaining ingredients. Shake very hard with plenty of cubed ice, then strain into a rocks glass full of cubed ice. Garnish with a sprig of thyme.

b&t says: While the Ilegal Anejo is perfect enjoyed neat, we couldn’t help but play with it in a cocktail, especially when Stephen mentioned that he though bourbon and Ilegal could work well together. The anejo has more depth and complexity to it, and the earthy, spicy notes that come through on the nose are reflected in the flavour too.

Smoke, dry wood, even a hint of leather, all balanced against that vegetal agave core. There’s something almost savory about this incarnation of Ilegal too, like a hint of saltiness, as if you were sipping it near the sea. The finish is long and smooth, and if you can resist taking another sip then you’re stronger willed than I am.

That’s the end of our interview with Stephen Myers of Ilegal Mezcal, but I’m sure it won’t be the last you’ll hear of him or of his great products.

If you haven’t been lucky enough to try them yet, then we suggest you either buy yourself a bottle (or all three) or find them in a bar and give them a go. I promise you won’t look back!