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Interview: Ilegal Mezcal Founder John Rexer

February 3, 2020

Bacardi took a minority stake in Ilegal mezcal in 2017, adding the brand to its portfolio just as the category began to pick up steam in the U.S. market. Mezcal has continued to grow rapidly from its small base with Ilegal playing a key role, led by founder John Rexer, who remains at the head of the business. Last year, Ilegal’s volume jumped by more than 50% to just under 30,000 cases. SND associate editor Shane English recently caught up with Rexer to discuss the evolution of both Ilegal and the mezcal category as a whole.

SND: Where are you seeing the most growth in the Ilegal portfolio?

Rexer: We’re seeing growth across the board. Ilegal Joven ($46 a 750-ml.) is taking the lead as awareness of mezcal has moved beyond aficionados and is spreading out beyond the coasts. We’re seeing Joven become a replacement for the base spirit in classic cocktails like Mules, Negronis, Martinis, and Old Fashioneds. Joven has also taken off because those who drink a shot and a beer are beginning to turn to mezcal, the way they may have in the past had a good Bourbon or Scotch and a beer. Our Reposado ($54) is aged in ex-Bourbon barrels from Kelvin Cooperage in Louisville, which gives it a subtle flavor of Bourbon and makes it quite distinct. The Añejo ($99), which is aged 13 months in new American oak, has another level of depth to it.

SND: Which markets are emerging as most important for Ilegal? What’s the split between on- and off-premise?

Rexer: Ilegal is most popular in New York, California, Florida, and Texas, particularly in metro New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, Miami, and Dallas. The Mid-Atlantic and Midwest are big growth markets for us. Ilegal is an on-premise heavy brand. It has an approximate 70% on-premise and a 30% off-premise split in the U.S.

SND: What’s your marketing approach, whether it’s introducing the brand to the trade or consumers?

Rexer: We bring our gang to town and stick there. What that means is we spend a lot of a time in a market, educating bartenders not just about Ilegal but the entire mezcal category, conducting seminars and going into great detail about the production process. We live-stream from the palenque (distillery), and questions can be asked directly of our producer partners in Oaxaca. On the customer side, we bring them into the full world of Ilegal, which encompasses art, travel, photography, and music, all in a very real sense. The biggest part of that is the Ilegal Music series, which supports the local music scene.

SND: How is the outlook for pricing and agave supply at the moment?

Rexer: The current price of Espadin agave is between 14 and 16 pesos ($0.74-$0.85) a kilo in Oaxaca. Over the last year it has gone up by roughly 3-4 pesos a kilo. Supply will continue to be tight for now, but by 2021-2022 there should be considerably more Espadin available, as growers have been planting aggressively. A lot depends on how fast the category grows, but my sense is that over time prices will stabilize at around 10 pesos a kilo. Brands that are growing their own agave or have partner growers will be in the best position.

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