I grew up in a party town. We were no strangers to any drinking game, ritual, slogan, or swag; heck, MTV broadcast a ten minute walk from my house for most of my childhood. Say it with me ya’ll “SPRING BREAK!” But, every so often, someone would surface with a t-shirt bearing a bold and terrifying phrase: “I ate the worm.” And just like that, we all knew they’d been to Mexico because that’s the thing right? There are worms in the tequila?
He must be so brave.
My dad’s friends would get together and tell wild stories of road trips in Mexico during their youth, laughing loudly about the few of them that went on specific missions to consume the mythic tequila with the worm.
The concept of a worm in a bottle of tequila pervaded my teenage years, helped in part by a scene in the movie Practical Magic where Sandra Bullock sensuously swirls a bottle of reposado and whispers “I’ve got a worm with your name on it, Jimmy.” Midnight margaritas and worms in tequila must be a thing, Hollywood told me so, just ask Milton from Office Space.
It’s been a minute since I “Spring Breaked” and I am older and wiser in the ways of agave distillates but I have to wonder why was there a worm in the tequila in the first place?
Drinking in Mexico
“Mexicans aren’t as familiar with the diversity of agaves and production methodologies because they tend to consume locally,” says Adolfo Lopez, Director of US Operations of López Real Mezcal, “Growing up in Oaxaca, for example, I never tried spirits made from agave cupreata, cenizo or lechuguilla because they don’t grow there. And similarly, I doubt someone from Chihuahua is consuming much mezcal from Puebla. It’s just not customary to drink mezcales from other regions and states because of the lack of familiarity and availability with those products.”
Locally sourced, got it, and technically, tequila is mezcal (the inverse, however, is not true) so for the rest of this conversation we’ll be focused primarily on mezcal. But how, exactly are we consuming this agave distillate?
“In my experience,” adds Julia Cuthbertson, co-founder of Las Chingonas Imports , “in Mexico, mezcal and agave spirits are still mostly consumed neat. Of course, cocktail culture has been on the rise for many years and it’s more and more common to find agave spirits used in drinks especially in cities with cocktail bars and restaurants with bar programs. In the US on the other hand, consumers tend to first try mezcal and agave spirits in a cocktail, and then graduate to trying to it neat.”
Graduate…hmmm…interesting word choice. So…like… we aren’t shooting the tequila then?
“In Mexico, generally, drinking tequila with things like Coke or Squirt is a little more traditional, as is drinking it neat with Sangrita,” points out Ivy Mix, owner of Leyenda and Fiasco! and author of Spirits of Latin America.
I’ll put down the salt shaker…
“My Enemies Are Worms”- Henry David Thoreau
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“There are two types of maguey worms,” writes John McEvoy in Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! “White maguey worms and red maguey worms. Both worms are technically larvea (gusano in Spanish)” with the white becoming a caterpillar and the red maturing into a moth. Both varieties infest and decimate agave crops. No bueno.
I am all for finding useful and sometimes delicious ways of disposing of invasive or detrimental species, and these worms happen to be protein rich and are indeed consumed in tacos, candied, or dehydrated and ground into salt. So do the worms add flavor to the tequila or mezcal? Is that the deal?
“In Mexico it’s not super traditional or common to use worms, insects or any type of animal in mezcal production. The aroma of the worm is certainly unique and exotic for most, but the intensity of the flavor it imparts is one that I don’t personally enjoy myself,” Adolfo admits, “The worm itself doesn’t serve any real purpose.”
“Some… say they put the worm in the mezcal because the worm, if eaten, has a drug like or hallucinogenic effect. This too is B.S.” -McEvoy, Holy Smoke!
So if the worm doesn’t make the spirit more delicious and it doesn’t F you up, why use it at all?
How Did The Worm Wind Up In The Bottle?!
“The worm has become emblematic in the mezcal world and almost a symbol of the spirit thanks to how it’s become popularized in the US. Consumers in the US are fascinated by the tradition and its mysterious origins,” Adolfo muses, “But it seems to be more of a marketing ploy than anything these days, almost like a challenge for adventurous enthusiasts abroad.”
McEvoy unpacks several theories in his book, but I gotta tell ya, they all jive with this. Now I’m not sure if Don Draper would have advocated for popping a worm in a bottle of booze to make it sell, but I’m also not sure that he wouldn’t have. Looking back at boozy history, we can find many examples of marketing leading to the creation of cocktails or products that make their way into the cannon of classics (Moscow Mule, anyone?).
Worm Marketing Theory
According to the marketing theory, a mezcalero sold his mezcal with a worm in the bottle to garner more attention for his product. American tourists ate it up (literally) and all the other producers followed suit. Adding a worm became a great way to sell subpar agave distillates that locals wouldn’t buy, but the gringos sure would. SPRING BREAK!
“During World War II, tequila enjoyed a huge surge in demand in the US due to the lack of whiskey coming in from Europe. The Jalisco producers could not handle the demand so they looked to their counterparts throughout Mexico for additional production. Most of these producers had neither brands nor labels…Oaxacan producers started putting a worm in their bottles so the importers would know it came from Oaxaca,” McEvoy explains, ” This theory is plausible because the timing coincides with the establishment of several large mezcal brands.”
Ah, the worm turns.
Do I want there to be a worm in my tequila?
These days, you don’t need a worm to tell you where your agave is distilled, just check the label!
“The more information on the bottle, the better in our opinion,” explains Julia, “We think all agave enthusiasts should demand transparency: who is the mezcalero/mezcalera, where are they located, which agaves were used and batch size at a minimum. And if full production details can be provided (regarding methods for roasting, crushing, fermentation and distillation), even better. This will help familiarize consumers with the craftsperson behind the bottle and educate them on this complex spirit.”
Ivy adds, “Do your research. Not all tequila or mezcal is created equal and a lot of it is absolute garbage. It SHOULD be expensive.” Agave plants take a minimum of 8 years to mature after all! “Buy cheap and you’ll get what you pay for. That being said, just because it’s expensive doesn’t make it good.” And just because there’s a worm in tequila, also doesn’t make it good. Ivy continues, “Read books and read blogs to find out the good stuff.”
No Worm Needed To Truly Appreciate Agave Spirits
So how do agave professionals like Adolfo, Ivy, and Julia drink mezcal?
“Neat and only aged in glass – as simple as that. This will help you appreciate the flavors of the agave, the land it comes from and the spiritual properties it possesses. For me, mezcal is liquid gold. It should be appreciated in its natural state and – most importantly – enjoyed with respect.”- Adolfo Lopez
I’ll drink to that!