It turns out the liquor-logged worm lying at the bottom of the tequila bottle is not an ancient Mexican tradition after all.Not only is the “worm in the bottle” myth old and exhausted, there is never supposed to be a worm in Mexican bottled tequila. The worm belongs only in bottles of Mezcal.
However, various American bottled brands put the worm in bottles of tequila to wow gringos and increase sales.
In the late 1940’s, a Mexico City entrepreneur named Jacobo Lozano Paez came up with the genius idea of introducing a worm in every bottle of Mezcal as a marketing gimmick. Pazo declared the worm an essential component of the liquor’s flavor and color.
Formally, Mezcal is a generic term meaning any distillate of the many species of agave plant and bottled in the region around the city of Oaxaca. Back in the day, it was merely the locals consuming the home-brewed smoky firewater.
When the bottle is empty the worm slips out and is tossed back in the bottle. I had momentarily thought of collecting preserved Mezcal worms for display but the ridiculous idea escaped me.
Let me introduce the larva in more proper terms: The agave worm (Hipopta Agavis for you bug experts) is actually a butterfly larva. The genuine agave worm is a bright, coral color that fades to pink in the bottle. The worms bore into the agave plant’s pineapple-like heart, and a fair amount get cooked in the Mezcal infusion.
I will get more in depth for you curious niños.
There are two types of gusano (worm) in Mezcal: gusano rojo (red worm), considered superior because it lives in the root and heart of the agave plant and the less valued gusano de oro (white or gold worm) which lives on the leaves.
The red gusano turns pale in the mescal and the gold turns pale grey. Both larvae are commonly eaten as food and are sold in Zapotec markets but I have yet to see any worms in markets or menus around Playa.
While some will insist you are supposed to eat the worm feel free to do so. It’s pickled and free of pesticides. In fact, the worms are often raised just for use in Mezcal, cooked and pickled in alcohol for a year.
Finding a gusanos in the agave plant during processing actually indicates an infestation and a lower-quality product. No Bueno.
Don’t forget about that small, unassuming bag of ‘worm salt’ tied to the bottle. It contains dried gusano, salt and chile powder. I ate this stuff on everything before learning that fact.
So now you have the down low of the worm in the bottle Mexican tradition. The only thing you need to decide: Will you or won’t you?