Mezcal Magic: Lily Ballance Puts her Spin on Agave

William & Company’s owner and mixologist Lily Ballance creates a sip of Mexico right here in Raleigh. 
by Jenn Rice | photography by Forrest Mason

Nestled on Person Street’s culinary row is William & Company, a cozy 40-seat watering hole. Outside, brightly-painted metal tables invite patrons to linger; inside the dimly-lit space, deep, weathered sofas do the same.

On a typical night, the bar is lined with mason jars overflowing with herbs and carefully labeled tinctures. Incense wafts through the room, and like novena prayer candles, dried bouquets and painted skulls dot the space. It comes together as a sort of witchy mercado, enticing but a little mysterious. 

The same could be said for Lily Ballance, the bar’s owner and mixologist: behind her signature red lip is an almost mystical connection to the ingredients she puts into her cocktails, earthly intuition and a little black magic for getting the concoctions just right. 

William & Company boasts one of the state’s most impressive Latin American spirits list, including mezcal, pisco, cachaça and even Diplomático rum from Venezuela. They call back to her roots—Ballance moved from Mexico City to the United States at age 14, without knowing how to speak English—and she’s worked to maintain that connection, and build it for her staff, by going back to the source. Earlier this year, Ballance flew her team William & Company owner and mixologist Lily Ballance. to Oaxaca, Mexico, to learn the ropes of mezcal with sustainable producer Sombra Mezcal.

Beyond getting an understanding for the process that goes into creating agave spirits, from planting to growing to distilling, Ballance says, “My whole team absorbed the energy of this magical land.” In the tiny town of San Sebastián Tutla, Ballance and her team saw how agave spirits are more than just making alcohol: once the liquid is extracted for example, agave fibers can be used to dye textiles or to make bricks for hospitals and schools. It’s both environmentally ahead of the game, and woven into the fabric of the land. “The work that goes into making mezcal is an art that can easily be lost,” Ballance says. “The city’s magic makes you feel closer to the earth, and feel happy you are in it.” 

For the novice: tequila and mezcal are both derived from the agave plant, native to Mexico. Tequila is a particular type of mezcal that’s produced only from the Blue Weber agave; mezcal can be produced from many different species of agave plants. Mezcal is typically considered tequila’s smokier sister, as it is cooked in the ground rather than steamed before it’s distilled. 

Agave is Ballance’s passion, with over 15 different mezcals behind the bar at William & Company—and counting. She also collects bitters ranging from local Crude Bitters to hard-to-find Mexican brands like Flor de Luna tea mix bitters, which offer natural healing benefits from the Aztec culture, and hoja santa from Herbolaria bitters. Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, she notes, is both perfect for mixing and one of her personal favorites to shoot straight. In a typical season, she says, “We work with seasonal ingredients and offer a different bar every day—a different menu, different music, different bartender—but still, everyone will know your name,” says Ballance. (Also of note: they offer “the best tamales in town,” she says, made by Coco Castro, a prep chef at Raleigh stalwart Five Star.)

As of press time, William & Company was shut down as a result of COVID-19 restrictions—but Ballance was still hard at work concocting. She’s perfecting kombucha from scratch, to incorporate on the menu when she’s able to reopen, and experimenting more with freshly grown produce. Half of the bar’s ingredients, she says, will come from her garden, or from her neighbors’ plots. “My spicy tequila is made with fresh peppers like jalapeño, Thai chilies, habaneros or anything my neighbors bring me from their gardens.” She also commissioned The Wooden Witch, a local wood maker, to redo the bathrooms and add in a few personal touches throughout the space. 

Two of her favorite libations include a Spicy (but not too spicy) Paloma and a thirst-quenching Watermelon Basil Mezcal Margarita, made with mezcal instead of tequila. Traditionally, a Paloma is tequila-based, but Ballance’s version is a hybrid. She uses both mezcal and jalapeño-infused tequila, combined with lime, grapefruit, simple syrup and Tajín (a spicy, tangy seasoning from Mexico made with chili, lime and sugar) to “salt” the rim. “Spicy tequila and mezcal are sisters, and they go well together because they have the same ‘agave mom,’” says Ballance. “Mezcal has a bittersweet and dry smoky flavor, which pairs well with grapefruit.” She serves this drink up in a traditional vaso de barro (clay vessel). “The earthiness of the clay seems to clean the mezcal while it goes down in a sip— that’s my feeling anyway—like a bit of filtration before it hits your lips.” 

For the Watermelon Basil Mezcal Margarita, Ballance works magic on the simplest of recipes, carefully pairing seasonal ingredients with freshly-squeezed juices inside the glass. “Watermelon is a palate starter to train someone to love mezcal,” she says. Basil adds a sweet fragrance, along with simple syrup and lime juice. “You can always drink it with tequila, but something about mezcal and watermelon is meant to be,” she adds. 

Ballance continues to look to her garden for inspiration and tap into her lengthy list of mezcals for the occasional mind trip to Mexico. And until we can slip into the world she’s created at William & Company, we can join her in spirit with these magical mezcal cocktails. 

Learn how to make William & Company’s Spicy Paloma and Watermelon Basil Mezcal Margarita.