In this reenergized historic haven, mezcal maven Liliana Ballance is creating a spiritual all-are-welcome international vibe where mezcal meets music (s/o to House DJ Keith Ward) meets culture. (PC J. Snap Photography)

Mezcal Maven

In Eat, October 2022 by Melissa HowsamLeave a Comment

Share this Post

Mezcalista and all-around bar badass Lily Ballance (of Willco fame) has opened La Veladora.

“Stay up all night and get lit.” That is what self-proclaimed “mezcal pusher” and William & Company owner Liliana Ballance  (aka Willco + Lily to regulars) wants you to do at her new Willco back bar, La Veladora, whose name literally translates to the essence of that sentiment, she jokes. 

La Veladora has three meanings, she tells Raleigh Mag in an exclusive interview. One, the Day of the Dead altar candle that burns through the night; two, a nightwatcher (“so kind of a night owl,” says Ballance); and, three, the traditional glass you use to drink mezcal in Oaxaca, Mexico (aka the birthplace of the agave spirit). Hence, “up all night lit,” she laughs. “It’s really the perfect name.” But beyond triple entendre, this longtime local hospitality vet—she co-owns uber-popular Five Star and is the former owner of now-defunct empanada/tequila hot spot Calavera—is responsible for putting Raleigh on the mezcal map… a buzz factor made only more buzzy by her new “agave Mexi cave.” 

For its part, Willco splashed on the scene in 2015 and catapulted the Person Street District to the destination it is today—and, in that time, has become the No. 1 seller of Del Maguey artisanal mezcal in controlled states in the U.S. (In fact, the brand’s ambassador just made a house call to educate the Willco staff!) Not bad at all for a cozy 40-seat bar in Raleigh. “It’s awesome. It’s crazy. It’s really cool,” says the mezcalista… “And I’m so proud of it.”

Now, her brand-new back bar, which quietly and intentionally joined the scene in August by word of mouth only (think a select text invite to seven of her friends—aka some of Raleigh’s key players: Oscar Diaz, Ashley Christensen, Chris Powers, etc.), will serve over 80 impossible-to-find varietals of mezcal, rare small-batch tequilas and obscure agave spirits like Raicilla, Bacanora and Sotol (Ballance is an agave aficionado after all). Add to that a lot of education (“we’re bringing that to Raleigh so people know there’s more to agave than tequila and mezcal,” she says) and a solid dose of history. 

For starters, the bona fide mezcal bar is adorned with authentic traditional relics that hail directly from Huatuclo Mexico en Oaxaca, handmade by local artisans specifically for La Veladora and shipped over by her cousin—think mezcal cups, pottery, blankets, masks… even local herbs and bitters. In essence: “everything that’s really traditional from that part of Mexico,” says Ballance. “I want it to have the Mexican/Latin vibe of Willco with a lot of art and culture—and just want it to look like a little cave.” 

And it does. Moving from front to back is a transformative experience, where you enter to find a dark candlelit space with burning palo santo wafting through the air to a backdrop of Mexican music. And it just works. “It feels like you are in two places at once,” says the mezcal maven. “Completely different music, cocktails, vibe.” It’s the definition of cool.

Adding to the authenticity, the space itself is a local artifact. Walk in to see the awe-inducing craftsmanship of the original near-80-year-old copper ceilings now revealed after being covered by fire damage. Or the cool Mexican tile. Or the restored original worn, rustic walls where you can literally see the layers of paint and brick, whose tatter serves as poetic justice for the agave anthem Ballance is serving up. Or the bar built by longtime Willco barback and former PieBird executive chef Christian Rivera’s bare hands from the original cedar burnt wood floors—both for authenticity (and super-sleek look) and to ingeniously overcome the severe supply chain delays and costs. Fun fact: The crafty barman (aka the “wooden witch”) is also responsible for all the woodwork at Willco.

“He took every piece and every nail and everything out and made the bar,” says Ballance. “There was a lot of damage, but we were able to reconstruct the original space without adding anything—we just repurposed and enhanced what was there, which is really cool because that bar is one-of-a-kind in the world. Nobody’s gonna have this type of wood—and burnt design. I was very lucky to have very artistic and driven people who were willing to do that. … And it was so exciting to see what was in my head come to life for the first time ever.”

Now open four days a week with DJs spinning vinyls to bookend the weekend hours on Thursdays and Sundays, La Veladora is just getting started. Look for intimate monthly 10-seat agave dinners pairing top local chefs, rare primo mezcals and “the magic behind each bottle,” says Ballance. “I’ll tell you all about this bottle and the grandmother,” she adds. Literally—she’s known to travel to the Mexican villages, stay with the families, learn about the agave they use, how they make it, etc. “There’s a purist agave movement—no additives—and the people behind it are so talented. I’ve been nerding out about the movement and the brands that really shine—and just want to get them here.” 

Just like Willco, La Veladora hasn’t—and won’t—need all the flashy marketing fanfare. Case in point, right now, at 11pm on a random rainy Wednesday, Willco is abuzz to the point you’d think it was Friday night. And not in an off-putting unapproachable way. But in an alive all-are-welcome energetic-yet-chill way. It’s all genuine. All authentic. And it’s a vibe. Just like Lily—which is likely why everything she touches turns to (agave) gold. @laveladorawilco; @willcobar

Share this Post

Leave a Comment