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Stephen Myers of Ilegal Mezcal

By Christia Madacsi

Artisanal mezcal (a Mexican spirit made from the agave plant) has found a following in the United States and abroad, thanks in part to the efforts of Stephen Myers, co-founder and global brand ambassador of Ilegal Mezcal. Myers explains the differences between tequila and mezcal, and the story behind the name.

Your background is in agricultural economics. How did you become involved in selling mezcal?
I was passing through Guatemala to improve my Spanish [when] someone cloned my bankcard and relieved me of about $10,000. So I got a job at a fantastic hole-in-the-wall bar [in Antigua] called Café No Sé. The owner, John Rexer, (now my business partner), was traveling frequently to Mexico to purchase mezcal to be sold at the bar, and I made many trips with him to Oaxaca.

I understand the company name was derived from your early methods of procurement. Why did mezcal have to be smuggled into Guatemala?
Back in 2005, artisanal mezcal was uncertified, which meant it could not be legally exported from Mexico. To get real mezcal into Guatemala, we had to bring it across the border by being a bit creative. Over a couple of years, we transported mezcal dressed as priests, we floated it on rafts at night, we hid it under buses. We got caught a few times but managed our way out.

How does mezcal differ from tequila?
By law, tequila can only be produced from blue agave. The heart of the agave is generally steam-cooked, fermentation is done rapidly and artificially, distillation takes place in large stills and flavor profiles are adjusted in laboratories. Mezcal can be made with up to 25 different kinds of agave. The agave is cooked in earthen ovens and smoked. Each small batch will have a slightly different flavor than a previous batch, similar to better wines.

Do you have a preferred cocktail? How about food pairings?
Cocktails are a great way to introduce people to mezcal. An ice-cold beer with a glass of the joven is fantastic on a hot afternoon. For a pre-dinner drink, I recommend trying equal parts Ilegal joven, Aperol and sweet vermouth; or a Oaxaca Old-Fashioned after dinner with Ilegal reposado; and then the anejo nice and neat to finish the evening. The joven works wonderfully well with ceviche. The reposado complements a great cheese and dried fruit platter, and the anejo does wonders with dark chocolate and nuts.

Have you ever done anything crazy after drinking too much mezcal?
A good way to put it is that mezcal has expanded the boundaries of what I now consider crazy.

Ilegal Mezcal is currently available in three different styles: joven (unaged), reposado (oak barrel–aged for four months) and anejo (aged for one year). Check out the “Where To Drink” page on Ilegal Mezcal’s website for more information.

Photos courtesy Illegal Mezcal