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Ilegal Mezcal: Stop ‘lashing out’ at brands trying to grow

As the mezcal category gains traction, the founder of Ilegal Mezcal has urged industry peers to stop “lashing out” at smaller brands that are attempting to grow.

Ilegal Mezcal received an investment from Bacardi in 2017

Speaking to The Spirits Business last month, John Rexer, founder and CEO of Ilegal Mezcal, said one of the main challenges facing the mezcal category at the moment was “people who really care about artisanal handcrafted spirits” lashing out at smaller brands looking to grow.

Numerous big players have entered the mezcal market in the last year or two, either through minority or majority acquisitions, or creating their own line extensions as per George Clooney and Diageo’s Casamigos Mezcal.

The world’s largest independent spirits company, Bacardi, acquired a minority stake in Ilegal Mezcal in February 2017. Rexer said one of the key benefits of this investment was the distribution muscle that came with a company of Bacardi’s size.

“In the US in particular, distribution is one of the hardest things to achieve,” he continued. “Bacardi gave us entry into the largest distribution network in the US, which was fantastic.

“I think people need to understand that if larger brands that grow can maintain integrity and quality, it will help support other brands in the category and help achieve a bigger ecosystem to help the whole category grow.

“That’s good for mezcal producers, good for real sustainability – and real sustainability in mezcal is being economically viable.”

Though mezcal is becoming increasingly popular, it still only accounts for approximately 2% of Tequila volumes. With a hugely traditional, handcrafted production process, category growth and volume expansion is a “double-edged sword”, as producers struggle to find an equilibrium between retaining artisanal production methods and scaling up in terms of volume.

“If mezcal does not reach certain volumes, it does not become economically viable for the big distributors whether in the UK or US,” Rexer added. “Then what happens is it becomes a very small, non-profit-making boutique industry where the category could very quickly die as an export product.

“It needs to achieve a critical mass in order to survive, which is then healthy for the producers and distillers back in Mexico who look at this as a business and their livelihood. If it doesn’t reach certain critical mass, it falls apart and becomes a rich man’s hobby.

“It’s a very double-edged sword, but the good thing I see is most of the brand owners and brand partners I’ve seen are working to make sure the product stays artisanal, and they are attempting to learn from mistakes made elsewhere when things grew too quickly.”

Bartender influence

Consumer familiarity with mezcal has increased in recent years off the back of the success of its agave cousin, Tequila.

Brian Calleja, bar manager at the Bloomsbury Club in London, has noticed customer interest in mezcal “double” in the last few years, with patrons looking to sip it in cocktails, over ice and neat.

“A lot of people say that mezcal will be the next big spirit trend, and at the moment it is quite in fashion,” said Calleja.

“Consumers are interested in the tradition behind mezcal and they’re interested to learn more about mezcal when they come to our bar. It’s about education.

“Normally, we recommend for people to try it neat first, but also in cocktails as it’s very interesting. One of my favourites is the Tommy’s Margarita but made with mezcal to get a smokiness. You can do the same with a Martini, Negroni, Hanky Panky, Manhattan – just put ‘smoky’ in front of the name and you have a twist on the classic.”

For an in-depth look at the mezcal category, see the October issue of The Spirits Business magazine, out now. 

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