Kaylan Rexer's Recipe for the Ultimate Summer Drink
The Ilegal Mezcal CMO on the brand’s M.O. and the secret to the perfect mezcal cocktail. Hint: pair it with art, music and just the right amount of trouble.
New York City is a pretty unconventional choice for a Mezcal brand to base itself, but then the more you learn the more you realize Ilegal is a pretty unconventional company—so for them, it made perfect sense. Riding the wave of Mezcal’s growth in popularity, Ilegal has spread across the US and, increasingly, the world. All the while holding tight to the core values that sparked the brand in the first place. And sure, the juice is mighty fine to imbibe, but there’s much more to Ilegal than being just a booze brand. We caught up with brand director and “head troublemaker” Kaylan Rexer to find out more and pick up a tasty summer drink along the way.
How does a product that originated in Oaxaca, primarily to stock a bar in Guatemala, end up as a brand based in New York City?
Kaylan Rexer: John Rexer [founder] and I are both from New York. I grew up in Long Island, John lived in Manhattan forever, while also traveling the world. It was always his home base. After 911, he felt he needed to get out. I think anyone who lived in downtown Manhattan at that time could feel the tension and the sadness and he’d lost a lot of friends so he started traveling again. He’d lived in Mexico in the late 80s and loved it so he decided to go back. He also always loved Mezcal. So he packed up his stuff, got rid of the apartment and hit the road. When it came time to launch the brand in the US, New York was the natural choice. We had a network here—it was me and two other people living in a flophouse, totally illegal, launching the brand and figuring it out as we went. Eventually, we left the other things we were doing and started working on Ilegal full-time. That was 2010. The brand came to the US in late 2009 but was really developed in ’04 in Antigua, Guatemala at Café No Sé. It was a whole process working out how to legally export into the US.
Does Café No Sé still exist?
KR: Oh yeah, and John is still there. Guatemala is his home base; he’s in Oaxaca a lot and occasionally he comes to New York for a few days and wonders why he left his nice little town for this.
I never think of New York as being a Mezcal town…
KR: Well, we’re part of a big family that is involved in the entertainment world here. We never thought, hey, where are we going to launch? California, East Coast, West Coast? The network we wanted was here. It was about the culture of Café No Sé more than anything—the mezcal grew out of that space, which was all about live music, art and creating this weird little pocket for conversation and community. New York, naturally, is very similar to that. There are a lot of New Yorkers who came through Guatemala before we were here and brought back bottles that would end up in their bars. Plus, the cocktail scene was really emerging both here and in San Francisco at that time as well.
How do you export the brand values that you’ve just mentioned into the New York scene?
KR: So, this is our new headquarters in Greenpoint. As you can see, we have a stage at the back and we’re working from a bar, shooting pool, etc.. This is the neighborhood we wanted to be in. At our old site on Perry Street in the West Village, we had lots of neighbors in the art world so we’d put on quarterly exhibitions….We’ll do all that sort of thing here. It’s about creating spaces and then bring those elements like music and art into them. We do the same thing with Ponyboy, where we put on live music on Thursdays.
Are you doing anything downtown at the moment?
KR: We are doing some stuff with Berlin—we do residencies with bands that we like, like the Liza Colby Sound. We did some stuff with Tompkins Square Bar, which is attached to Niagara. The same people that we book and play [at our headquarters], play through all these places. Also, Lucky Strike is a New York institution and they have a great Ilegal cocktail on their list.
What role does politics play in the brand culture of Ilegal?
KR: Ilegal has always and will always support causes and movements that we believe strongly in. I’m a gay woman, and the Ilegal family is made up of an incredibly diverse group of people. The humanitarian issues at the border, women’s rights issues, and LGBTQ+ issues directly impact people within our community.
Obviously, it’s more than a brand; what’s in store for the future, where is it going?
KR: New York is definitely our hub and it’s our biggest market, but then we have California, Southern Florida, Texas, and Fort Worth where all these little music things are starting to cultivate and became really big. So we’re trying to replicate what we’ve done here and build communities. Certainly, the US is the focus at the moment but we’re looking internationally as well. We’re in 15 different countries. In the Mezcal world, we’re big but really we’re still a small brand.
Mezcal has exploded massively in the last few years. I think a lot of people probably felt that it was a trend that would go away but it really hasn’t.
KR: We really had to fight against that it’ll go away attitude. It probably wasn’t taken that seriously as a category to begin with but we figured, let’s make people fall in love with it and then we can educate them, then they’re going to want to know more, and after Ilegal they fall in love with lots of different mezcals and want to travel to Oaxaca because it’s such a diverse place. This is the way we like to make it, this is the way the families we partner with like to make it, which is why we’ve worked with them for so long. But there are so many different regions in Oaxaca alone, so that’s the goal: get people in with the music and art, have them fall in love with the booze, have them fall in love with the category.
Ilegal Summer Cocktail Recipe
Love Your Neighbor
1.5oz Ilegal Mezcal
.5oz Grapefruit Juice
.5oz Lime Juice
Build over ice. Dash of Salt. Twist of Grapefruit.
WORDS Willem Hock
PHOTOGRAPHY Kaylan Rexer for Passerbuys