Whether you’re just old enough to drink or have been at it for years, chances are you’ve heard of the worm that lives at the bottom of mezcal bottles. These days, most premium mezcal doesn’t contain a worm, but the invertebrate remains something of a cultural icon. There are lots of conflicting reports on the actual purpose of the worm. Will you get high if you eat the gusano? Why are some red and some white? And is it even a worm? Let’s take a quick look at some of these questions.
Contrary to popular belief, the worm is not actually a worm.
Depending on the color of the critter lounging at the bottom of some mezcal bottles, the gusano is an edible caterpillar from either a moth or a butterfly. The red worm comes from larva from the Comadia redtenbacheri or Hypopta agavis moth. And the gusano blanco, the white caterpillar, transforms into the Aegiale hesperiaris butterfly — a.k.a the tequila giant skipper.
If you find yourself with snout weevil in your bottle of mezcal, you know you have a cheap product on your hands.
These worms were part of daily life for Aztecs and famers in Mexico.
According to Latin American Insects and Entomology, Aztecs collecting sap from the agave were aware of the red and white varieties of the worms. They called the red variety chilocuiles and the white variety meocuili. Later, farmers and other natives began cultivating the worms for food, and even pickled a few to put in mezcal to give it a “special flavor.”
Including the worm in a mezcal bottle isn’t part of an ancient tradition.
The practice of bottling mezcal with a worm began in 1950, when art school student-turned-mezcal maker Jacobo Lozano Paez saw a potential marketing gimmick. While the worm plays an important role in the production and flavor of mezcal, Paez likely included worms in the bottling process as a way to distinguish his brand of mezcal from others available at the time.
Other than a simple marketing technique, some people believe the worm is a way to indicate whether or not a bottle of mezcal has a high enough alcohol content. If the worm rots, then there’s not enough alcohol. If the worm stays preserved, then the mezcal is probably quality stuff.
No, eating the mezcal worm won’t do all those things they say it will.
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While Paez’s inclusion of the maguey worm might have seemed like an odd marketing choice, it’s hard to deny the near-legendary status the worm has acquired over the years. Depending on who you ask, the worm has the powers of an aphrodisiac, can make you hallucinate, or will make you look hella dope in front of your friends. That last one might be true, but eating the worm won’t really accomplish anything other than making you a little drunker thanks to the alcohol it has absorbed.
In 2005, Agave farmers had to fight the Mexican government to keep the worm in mezcal.
Over a decade ago, Mexico’s government decided it wanted to increase domestic and foreign consumer confidence in the quality of mezcal coming out of their country. In order to attain certification from the government, distillers couldn’t use the maguey worm in future mezcal production. At that time, Graciela Angeles, part owner of Mezcal Real Minero, told the San Diego Tribune, “If there is no worm, there will be no sales.” Thankfully farmers proved that the worm didn’t diminish the quality of mezcal, and so they won the right to keep their worms in mezcal. So eat it with pride!