Interviews, Spirit

Interview: Stephen Myers from Ilegal Mezcal

Stephen Myers, like many liquor entrepreneurs, is wearing a branded tee when I run into him in Sydney. The shirt has a cluster of three rabbits screen printed on the left breast.

I’ve been brushing up on my religious history of the Postclassic era of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican chronology, and in particular of the Aztec cultures, so I ask if the rabbits are an obtuse reference to the the Goddess Mayahuel, the Aztec personification of the Maguey, or agave plant (Yes, this plant was important enough to have a goddess.) Legends have it that she was mother to many children, the Centzon Totochtin, essentially 400 rabbits that liked to get drunk and party.

I get a wry smile from Myers and a lightning fast answer. “Yeah, or it could just be three rabbits fucking.”

This type of humour is one of the real joys of spending time with Stephen, who started the Ilegal brand with John Rexer about 7 years ago.

Myers doesn’t really tell the story of the brands inception and growth in a linear fashion. It’s a fascinating foible, one that allows people like me to join stories together, uncover snippets that others may have found online, invent the odd hazed remembrance and cobble them all together into more personal, perhaps a more meaningful whole. It has resulted in me being in possession of a story, that while certainly began being his, feels as much like mine as I sit down to write it. If there are glaring untruths or pansy fictions, they are most certainly mine but to paraphrase Steve Coogan playing Tony Wilson quoting John Ford – “when you have to choose between truth and legend, choose the legend.” So it goes.

Like all great liquor stories, this one starts in a bar.

Myers and Rexer established themselves as proprietors of a small bar in Antigua, Guatemala. The idea in print seems born of a desire to remain clothed, watered and fed. The reality probably was closer to keeping liquor in a glass and banter to pass the time. The photos of the place look rustic, and the roof needs to be physically held up in a rainstorm. Big authenticity tick there, this is surely a brand not brainstormed in a boardroom.

Café No Sé attracts a motley crew of artists, expats and characters, people who have made a decision to get as far away from what seems like civilisation in order to discover some supreme truth about themselves and the world in which we live. I reckon Stephen probably fit into this category, once upon a time. Now though, with suitcases full of branded t-shirts and and stickers and an obvious passion for this, the latest turn this life has taken,  I’m willing to go out on a limb and say Stephen Myers has found his secret, and you can by it three varieties, in bottles of 700mls.

The Ilegal brand was born out of trips into Oaxaca State, across the border in Mexico. Rexer and Myers were unhappy with the tequila and Mezcal they had available in Guatemala, so undertook the clandestine importation; yes, smuggling, of the fine smoky liquor from their immediate North. So popular was the fruits of their labour, a decision was made to move up the chain from supply to manufacture, and they haven’t looked back.

It seems like exicting times ahead for the brand. Stephen is relocating to Europe as the push for world domination continues. Mezcal seems to be enjoying a wonderful golden age, as increased interest and consumption of tequila creates an educated pool of drinkers looking for something new and interesting. Helping too is the shift around the world to rid the bar of cigarette smoking, the peaty malts of the West Scots coast and the even more visceral mezcals of the Oaxacan state now offer then illusion of a soothing drag, where legalities, or health concerns do not.

Ilegal is made from only three ingredients; Agave Espadin, Oaxacan Sun and Time. It can take 12 years for the agave to ripen, before the spines are cut by a jimador and the hearts taken from the fields to the distillery. The hearts are then baked in an earth oven, acquiring the iconic smoky notes of mezcal and accentuating the earthiness shared by every spirit made from the agave. The cooked hearts are smashed under a stone wheel, fermented in an open oak vat and batch distilled in a small copper still. It is then either bottled for the Joven style, rested for the Reposado or aged for the Anejo. All three are worth indulging your senses in.

Contact Sapere Drinks for information on how to stock Ilegal in your bar, and if all you want is a taste, try Eau de Vie, Victoria Room or Cafe Pacifico.


Interview with Bob Nolet from Ketel One

Thanks to my very fine friends at Splendid Comms, I was able to slide a few questions in front of the latest member of the Nolet family to control the vodka behemoth that is Ketel One. It was a written response so some of the answers aren’t exactly what I was after, but as Bob is Dutch, things could have been a lot worse. I hope you find his answers enlightening.

Why is a Dutch vodka company investing in the Australian market, and specifically why Melbourne?

Australia has a dynamic cocktail culture to rival any of the international capitals, so it’s the perfect market to appreciate Ketel One vodka. I discovered that Melbourne is one of my favourite cities after I visited in November last year and was really impressed with the vibrant bar scene and the knowledge and passion of the bartenders. Melbourne has a European feel and a population who have sophisticated taste and appreciate quality experiences – so it’s perfect for Ketel One vodka.

What have you got planned for the Ketel One House down there?

Ketel One House was our way of re-creating the brand home of the Nolet Distillery in Schiedam, Holland, in another city. It was a space celebrating Melbourne craftsmanship. Located in one of the city’s laneways, it demonstrated the work of some of Melbourne’s most talented designers and mixologists. Essentially what was a bar in a gallery; it combined the expert crafts of design, lighting, bespoke furniture, illustrations, installations and beautiful cocktails to bring Ketel One to life in a unique way. The space was open for a series of events for three weeks only from mid June 2010 to early July 2010.

Vodka has had a rough time with bartenders (Audrey from Pegu Club, in particular) reserving a special type of dislike for the class of spirits, sometimes even leaving them off the list. Is that changing?

In the very early days of vodka production in Eastern Europe, dating back some 1000 years, vodka was characterised by a vastly diverse drink profile, with many variations in taste and flavour profile, due to ingenious ways of distilling all kinds of ingredients. During the 19th century, with Mr. Lowitz’s invention of charcoal filtration, Mr. Stein and Mr. Coffey with the continuous still and Mr. Mendeleev with the alcohol percentage and purity ratings, there signalled a distinct change in the way vodka was produced. Vodka became about scientific benchmarking and ‘pure’ purity. This period is known as the ‘Hundred Year Standard’, from the early 1890’s to the 1980’s, redefined the category and the meaning of vodka. The best example of this style of course is Smirnoff, and today this brand is the clear global leader and definition of this style. Some bartenders hold a negative attitude towards this style of vodka due to the fact that it does not have a complex flavour profile, and acts as more of a blank canvas rather than lending itself as the primary note of a drink.

However, in the early 1980’s, some brands, such as Ketel One, beginning to revert back to the more artisan methods which stood for variety and diversity in the taste and flavour, as well as helping to re-introduce the culture of respect to the category. Copper pot-stills and small batches, which had been such a key part of the vodka world in the 16th Century, began to make a comeback. Vodka began to be less about origin, but about the culture it promoted.

It is this current direction of the category, championing and mastering both styles, resulting in either a ‘pure and classic style’ or a ‘copper, batch style’, which makes vodka today such an appealing spirit.

What sets Ketel One apart from the rest of the batch style vodkas is the silky soft mouth feel and the distinctive flavour profile – Ketel One vodka is good enough to drink neat. The old copper pot still from the Nolet Distillery, called the Distilleerketel #1, is still used to this day and imparts the vodka with a sophisticated, silky softness and rich mouth feel while the modern addition of an ultra wheat spirit, balances it out and gives it a lively crispness. It is marrying the subtle fragrance, flavour, feel and finish of a vodka to different ingredients that defines vodka mixology, whereas too often the ingredients can be first chosen and then married to a vodka. One of our signature serves for example is the Rickey; a twist on a classic, accentuating the fresh and citrus fragrance of Ketel One through the lime juice, playing with the silky mouthfeel with the sugar syrup, the crispness on the palate is accompanied by the soda water and the overall impression is both a respect for Ketel One and the enjoyment of the consumer.

Do you think Ketel One in particular is at an advantage with its distinct licorice taste profile?

Ketel One definitely holds an advantage due to its unique flavour profile. However, I think it is important to look at the complete flavour and taste profile of Ketel One to really appreciate its attraction. The nose is fresh with hints of citrus, followed by a crispness on the palate, with a touch of sweet liquorice, accompanied by an impressive silky soft mouth feel with a gentle lively tingle as an aftertaste. Liquorice on its own, can only express itself if accompanied by the other elements of the tasting. Personally, I feel the silky softness on the palate is the secret touch which helps Ketel One stand out and brings something extra special to a cocktail.

How has gaining access to the Diageo network changed things for a historic family run distillery?

At a product level, there has been no change. The Nolet family is still very much involved in the day to day running of the Ketel One distillery and business. The partnership has just brought together the best of both worlds, with the Nolet family personally approving each final production of Ketel One and Diageo providing its marketing and distribution expertise. Diageo has become an extension of the Ketel One family. We now have a larger family, caring for and nurturing Ketel One and we both have a shared ambition to grow Ketel One globally.

What are the big trends in cocktails for the coming year?

We are seeing resurgence in the popularity of classic cocktails, and classics with a twist. Ketel One was created to make the ultimate vodka martini with its balanced fragrance and flavour, so we’re in a great place to make the most of this trend. However we also enjoy a Rickey or a Grapefruit Julep with Ketel One, rather than with gin or bourbon respectively. There is also a trend towards premium vodkas, such as Ketel One Citroen, being enjoyed neat or ‘on the rock’. The generous and fresh taste profile of a spirit such as Ketel One or Ketel One Citroen means it requires little else.

How are those filtering down to the way people consume at home?

We are definitely witnessing a trend of people wanting to learn more about cocktail making at home. It’s nice to see the rise in enthusiasm amongst consumers to educate themselves in how to prepare a great cocktail at home, whether that be through understanding the flavour profile of the spirit or techniques used to mix the best accompanying ingredients.

Where are you off to next?

I am in Greece the week of July 12th for World Class – Diageo’s global competition for the World’s best bartender.