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Mezcal Worm - not the Tequila Worm

Tequila bottles do not contain a worm or gusano - only some Mezcal bottles.

If you are looking for a bottle with a worm, don’t look for it in a bottle of Tequila—only Mezcal is bottled with a worm.  Mezcal is not the same as Tequila — the two should never be confused. Tequila is made exclusively from the blue agave plant, whereas Mezcal can be distilled from blue agave, in addition to the other varieties of maguey plant native to the area.

The use of the worm, or gusano is exclusive to Mezcal, since the Mexican standards authority, NOM, prohibits adding insects or larvae to tequila.  It seems to be a rite of passage for many to take that first shot of Mezcal or to eat the worm at the bottom of the bottle.  When you drink a bottle of Mezcal con gusano -- "with worm", what you actually have in your bottle is the larva of one of two moths that live on the maguey plant.  It is a mariposa worm, which feeds on the agave plant, from which Mezcal is made.

There are two types of worms found in Mezcal: the red, gusano rojo—considered superior because it lives in the root and heart of the maguey plant—and the less-prized white, or gold, gusano de oro, which lives on the leaves. In order to tell which worm is in your bottle, check out its coloring.  The red gusano turns pale in the Mezcal and the gold turns ashen-gray. While shopping for Mezcal, you may also come across a Mezcal bottle with a small bag of worm salt and chile powder tied to it.  Keep in mind, that as a rule, top-quality Mezcals do not include a worm in the bottle.

Are you wondering if you’re supposed to eat the worm in Mezcal? Yes, in fact, it’s quite well pickled and free of pesticides as the worms are often raised just for use in Mezcal, cooked and pickled in alcohol for a year. Aside from its use in Mezcal, the maguey worm is considered a delicacy in Mexico.  The larvae are commonly eaten as food.  They can be found on some restaurant menus and are sold in Zapotec markets.  The worm is harmless to consume and it is believed in certain traditions that doing this is beneficial to the spirit and locks in the vigor of Mezcal.  

Today the urban legend of the tequila worm continues to survive and eating the worm has become a rite of passage for many.  You may wonder how the legend got started.  Back in the 1940’s, some American-bottled brands of Mezcal came up with a marketing ploy.  Stemming from the myth that the worm has magical and aphrodisiac properties, they decided to put a worm in their bottle to impress the gringos and boost sales.  Although, the truth about the tequila worm has been acknowledged and exposed for years by the cognoscenti of tequila, in newspapers, magazines, as well as on the internet, the legend continues to thrive. The truth is that even though the worm can soak up a little of the alcohol, eating the worm has no noticeable effect on people.

In addition, to using the worm as a marketing strategy, there is another reason claimed for adding the worm to the bottle of Mezcal. The claim is that the worm serves as evidence of the high proof of the Mezcal, as the percentage of alcohol in the spirit is high enough to preserve the pickled worm. This declaration is debatable. 

Whatever the reason, Mezcal is still notorious for the worm in the bottle.  According to Ian Chadwick, “It's almost impossible to disassociate Mezcal today from the worm, although it is a comparatively recent relationship, and not a traditional accompaniment.”  The worm-spiced Mezcal is a novelty item and has worldwide appeal.  Whether it is the imagery and legends of the worm that appeals to rugged men or the belief that the worm is an aphrodisiac, the worm at the bottom of a bottle of Mezcal makes this spirit more than just another bottle of booze.

Sources for more information:

OaxacaInfo.com - http://www.oaxacainfo.com/oaxaca/mezcal.htm

Ian Chadwick's In Search of the Blue Agave - http://www.ianchadwick.com/tequila/mezcal_worm.htm

Del Maguey web site - http://www.mezcal.com/worms.html

Tastings.com web site - http://www.tastings.com/spirits/tequila.html

Mexican Worm Takes a New Turn - Tequila.net http://www.tequila.net/agave_news/latest/mexican_worm_takes_a_new_turn.html

Wikipedia.org - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mezcal_worm

Last Revision - 23 April 2010 - jat
Mezcal Worm - not the Tequila Worm