Often characterised as the lawless cousin of Tequila, mezcal is in fact a legally regulated spirit found in various parts of Mexico, but most famously in the southern state of Oaxaca. It is made using various types of agave – while Tequila is a monoculture of blue agave, mezcal uses dozens of sub-species – and a highly artisanal production method.
Traditionally, mezcal agave is baked in underground earth ovens, which imparts the distinctive aromas for which it is famed. But techniques – and the flavours they impart – vary enormously among the multiplicity of small mezcal producers.
Like Tequila, mezcal can be unaged (‘joven’ or ‘young’), or aged in wood for months or sometimes years. Most often consumed neat in Mexico, mezcal is now finding a place on many cocktail lists across the US and Europe.
What started out as a way for company founder John Rexer to supply his bar in Antigua Guatemala with mezcal (not always officially, as the name suggests) is now a thriving business in which rum giant Bacardi owns a stake. Respectability hasn’t changed the authentic core of Ilegal, however, which manages to convey the essential character of mezcal in a supremely accessible way.
Serving Suggestions: This is a great introduction to mezcal, so neat is the way to go – but it makes for an intriguing comparison with a traditional Tequila margarita, where that earthy smoke really cuts through.
Highly perfumed nose of smouldering greenwood, spice and bonfire embers. Very earthy, but still refined, with warm citrus – ripe orange skin in particular. The palate brings more of that savoury, earthy smoke, but there’s enough restraint to allow the perfumed fruit to return. The finish is redolent of a neglected bonfire smouldering in a rain shower. Nicely balanced between smoothness and spiky character.