The Tippling Point | From Mexico to Guatemala, Café No Sé’s ‘Ilegal’ Mezcal Has Won Hearts Everywhere


The signature ‘Ilegal’ mezcal was brought to Antigua by John Rexer, who kept the name as so, in tribute to the old days when he had to transport the drink through unconventional modes.

Spotless walls. Chandelier. Cozy furniture. Rich interior that oozes luxury. Music blaring from speakers. You only have to close your eyes to see what makes a modern bar, plush and stylish. But, as most people know, homeliness is made of something that’s altogether different.

A visit to Guatemala’s Antigua is incomplete without a visit to Café No Sé, one of the most unique night-time hangouts in the world. You might find the entrance too downbeat, almost like a gateway to a village shack. Once enter the dimly-lit hall, your eyes needs time to readjust. The bar is crowded with people from all over the world.

The Latin American country of cloud forests and beautiful lakes, Guatemala is famous for its fragrant cups of coffee. A little away from the city lies Antigua, a doorway to a time we thought we had left behind long ago. With a population of 41 thousand people, the town is a UNESCO Heritage site. The colonial-era mansions and churches vie for your attention along with three volcanoes that challenge the trekker in you.

Take a stroll along the jacaranda-lined plazas, browse through the curios at the craft markets and finally when you are all done up, vamoose into one of the cafes, to spend a long lazy evening, sipping your espresso. Or if you are up for a night of abandon-less fun, try Café No Sé.

Live music welcomes you the moment you pop your head into the dingy bar, with a demure and humble entrance that needs sharp eyes to pick it from the street outside.

Forget those gleaming bars elsewhere. Café No Sé is all about candlelights and warm smiles. Greet the warm and friendly strangers as you head to the counter for a heady mix of cocktail. Sipping the mix, you eyes rove around for another drink. You have already heard the story that this is the best hangout for mezcal outside its home, Mexico. But, where is the poison? There it is. Your eyes finally ferret out the shape of a refrigerator door at one corner in the dim light.

The door opens with a creak. Ready to take the red pill? The rabbit hole takes you into a version of Alice’s Wonderland -the mezcal shot bar where, the most famous brand of mezcal – Ilegal – is served in shot glasses.

Many view mezcal as the poor cousin of tequila. But at Café No Sé, the story is different. Hear it out:

It was after the fateful day on September 11, 2011, that John Rexer decided to leave New York for good. He came to Guatemala on a whim and tried his hands in running a bar. Mezcal was his USP. But initially it was difficult to import mezcal from Mexico legally, so he stuck to unconventional modes of transport.

But when the drinks he sourced it from local sellers in Mexico became a hit with his customers in Antigua, he decided to make the business legal. He built a new brand and gave the new drink the name, “ilegal”. What a tribute to the days of struggle which brought this business about!

Today the “Ilegal” mezcal (produced in Oaxaca, Mexico) is available at Café No Sé in three varieties, of which the anejo (old) is well worth trying. Take a sip and look around – in the gleaming candlelights – to the strange decorations and the graffiti on the walls, one-liners that could make your day or perhaps a long evening.

Don’t put it on the workings of mezcal, if you identify the man sitting near you as one of the celebrities you adore. This place is so famous that artists and readers frequent it all year round. If you have money, buy one of the regulars a couple of drinks, and watch the treasure trove of mystic stories open its lid.

Café No Sé also runs a bookstore adjacent to the bar. Books and bar! What a combination indeed!


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