A couple of months ago I decided to plan a trip to Guatemala. Being the anal planner I am, I researched the hell out of places to go. The first bar I read about was Café No Se.
I knew instantly this was going to be my home away from home, especially since it had been described in one reviews as dark smoky places with surly bartenders, drunks who speak Latin, soulful musicians, oddballs and freaks, "artists and actors and writers and such" poets and cynics, international do-gooders and people who read books, sloshy raconteurs -- and custom infused Ilegal Mezcal.
As I researched more about the place and its owner John Rexer, I decided I had to track him down. Here is a guy that came to Guatemala on a whim and ends up with a bar, a bookstore, a magazine on art and politics and is an exporter of his own brand of mezcal called Illegal. Apparently he did go south of the border to take a vacation. I was lucky enough to get John to sit down with me and chat over some beers and mezcal.
"What made you decide to come to Guatemala?" I asked as we sat down.
"It was very random," John answered. "After Sept 11, 2001 I just really wanted to get out of New York. There was a dark pall over the city. I wanted to be on the outside looking in, to reassess. So I hit the road. I started in Mexico and then ended up in Guatemala in 2003 for Holy Week."
"Several months later I opened my bar Café No Se, in Antigua," John continued. "It was as much out of out desperation as it was inspiration. I was pretty broke. I really had no plan, I just decided to create my ideal bar, the kind of place I would want to hang in and I hoped others would like it too. I've always been a fan of the old school dive, the bar without televisions, without blaring music, where you can have a conversation with the beautiful or bungled or botched while listening to some great live music."
"I'm a big fan of the old school dive bar myself," I said. "I always have been. How did you introduce mezcal to the world?"
John laughed. "Well, I'm not sure we have introduced it to the world, but we have turned a lot of people onto real, well-made artisanal mezcal. In the late '90s I spent a great deal of time in Oaxaca, Mexico. I also spent a lot of time in many small palenques watching mezcal production and of course tasting copiously. I kept notes in a journal on the different processes and ways of making mezcal. It became quite a passion."
"I was bitten by the mezcal bug," John told me. "I loved it, the culture around it and the Oaxacan landscape. In 2004 I decided to rent the space next door to Cafe No Se and turn it into a tiny mezcal bar, more like a cantina than anything else. When it came time to stock this bar I went back up to Oaxaca and revisited a number of the villages and bought a variety of mezcals. Getting the mezcal into Guatemala at that time was a bit tricky as it was not certified for export. We had to resort to creative methods of crossing the border with hundreds of liters of mezcal. It was all good fun though we did have more than our share of precarious moments, you know the usual stuff, being held up at gunpoint by a gang with automatic weapons, having bribes squeezed out of us, the standard stuff."
"How did this lead you to creating your own brand?" I asked, not getting hung up on his stories of border banditry.
"First of all the mezcal we were bringing to my bar was extraordinary liquor. Delicious, smooth, layered. Artisanal and small batch don't even begin to describe the love and time that goes into making it. So it did not take long for it to catch on, and soon my customers were asking for mezcal more than the local rum, or tequila or just about anything we served. Secondly, whenever we returned to the bar with a haul of mezcal we returned with stories of our adventure in getting across the border. I think the combination of great booze and great stories sort of created a cult following around what we were doing."
John went on: "We soon started getting inquiries from overseas for our mezcal. Then shortly thereafter some major publications wrote about us including The New York Times and the inquiries for our mezcal came flooding in. It was kind of funny, as we did not have a brand. Around the end of 2005 we started to take the idea of creating our own brand seriously. So we formed a relationship with one of the best small producers in Oaxaca who had recently certified his mezcal for export. We named the brand Ilegal, because of how it all began."
If you ever have the chance to make it to the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala I strongly suggest you stop by Cafe No Se. Stories still flow through this bohemian outpost of a bar, as does some pretty delicious mezcal.