Mezcal drives the mellow Melon Ball Z at OKC’s Palo Santo.
At the risk of oversimplifying, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who like mezcal, and those who, after tasting it, think someone accidentally emptied an ashtray into the cocktail. Tequila’s agave-based cousin has been having a big moment worldwide for the past couple of years, and ground zero for mezcal in OKC is cocktail bar Palo Santo at 1203 SW Second St. in the Farmers Market District.
Ordinarily, this would be the spot where we talk about how Bailey Butler, co-owner and cocktail wizard, is the best in the 405 at balancing the complex flavors of historically difficult ingredients like mezcal, sherry and pisco. But in this case, it’s her husband Brian Butler, chef and co-owner, who gets the credit for the Melon Ball Z — a fact Bailey readily acknowledged.
While it would seem obvious that a chef, a person whose job it is to build layers of flavor and texture, could easily transition into crafting cocktails, too, that’s rarely the case. Butler, who cut his teeth working with food truck pioneer Chef Roy Choi for six years in Los Angeles, is an exception to the rule. He brings the same level of creativity and experience to the bar as the kitchen.
The Melon Ball Z — which does in fact have a melon ball for a garnish — is exactly what newbies to mezcal need to assess which of the two camps (love or ashtray) they belong in. The smokiness, or Band-Aid flavor as some would have it, of mezcal comes from roasting the hearts (piñas) of the agave plants in rock-lined, conical, underground pits. The smoky flavor is married to the mash at that point, and the test for bartenders is to manage that sometimes aggressive smokiness by combining it with ingredients that either complement or mask (to some degree) the smoky, rubbery notes.
Butler used Ilegal Mezcal — a brand name and not a statement of criminal status — for the Melon Ball Z. The spirit is made from the Espadín varietal of agave, the most commonly used varietal in mezcal production. Each type of agave has its own flavor profile; the smoke is not part of the flavor profile, which is obvious when consuming tequila.
What makes Melon Ball Z the perfect introduction is Butler’s use of pisco, cantaloupe and Chareau (an aloe-based liqueur), lemon and Peychaud’s Bitters to make the mezcal one note among many. You can still taste it, but it’s sharing space with other strong flavors, and it’s mellowed a bit by the aloe and melon. Basically, if you don’t like the Melon Ball Z, mezcal is probably not for you. Fortunately, Palo Santo’s bar has you covered either way.