Forget the Worm: Mysterious Mezcal

On March 16, 2012, in Andy Romine, News, The Booze Nerd, by Andy Romine

Today on the Booze Nerd, I want to talk about another spirit that, like Absinthe, has an aura of mystery and myth surrounding it: mezcal. The first I heard about this “Mexican moonshine” was whispered promises of potency and the mystical visions that eating the worm at the bottom of the bottle would bring. Even mere talk of this spirit brought an illicit thrill to my curious palate.

In the meantime, I sampled plenty of tequila (and for a long time, had decided it wasn’t really for me. I learned this in college, btw. Tequila 101). Until very recently, I had all but forgotten about mezcal. However, my recent forays into scotch-tasting led me to questing for other smoky spirits.


Tequila is Mezcal, but not all Mezcal is Tequila. 

Mezcal is the quintessential Mexican spirit, distilled from roasted and fermented piñas, or the hearts of agave plants. The agave grows nearly all over Mexico, and contrary to popular belief, is not a cactus, but a succulent, like the aloe plant. One particular variety, known as the blue agave, is the source of Tequila, a regional mezcal first brewed around the late seventeenth century.

Agave (Maguey) (photo Marc Ryckaert / Wikipedia)

The agave is known in Mexico as the maguey, and in popular myth was associated with the goddess Mayahuel, an ancient deity of fertility and rebirth. The sticky, honey-like sap of the maguey was thought to be the goddess’ blood, and could be fermented into a potent, mucilaginous beverage known as pulque. (The trickster god Tlacuache gave this secret to humans after he learned to make it himself). Pulque was a sacred drink, and its use governed by ritual and  tradition, often in connection with the harvests.

That’s not to say it was hoarded only by the priests! On special feast days, everyone was permitted to drink as much as they wanted. Intoxication was thought to bring you closer to the gods, after all. Tezcatzontecatl, Mayahuel’s consort and the god of drunkeness (naturally), had 400 children: each one a rabbit who represented a different type of intoxication!

After Spain colonized Mexico, this rustic drink gained the attention of the Spanish, who were desperate to find a replacement for their dwindling supplies of wine and booze from the Old World. Grapes and other fermentable crops were grown in Mexico, but strict



legislation and tax codes prevented the colonists from brewing hooch in the traditional methods. But the King of Spain didn’t care at all about the indigenous agave plant.

Mezcal originates mainly from the state of Oaxaca, but in the 1750s, Don José Antonio Cuervo was granted land by the king to grow agave and produce “mezcal wine.” The first recorded distillation took place in 1758 in a little town called Tequila. In 1958, “The Champs” recorded their own homage to the Mexican national beverage, also called “Tequila.”


Roasted And Rustic

Everything about distilling mezcal remains largely rustic, even in an age of massive stainless steel vats and gas-heated boilers. Mezcal production is highly localized, with each remote village responsible for its own distinct flavors and techniques. The key words to remember with mezcal are “hand-crafted.”

The hearts of the agave plant (piñas) are harvested when the plant’s about eight years old, and then slow-roasted in stone lined pits for three days. This is where mezcal picks up its characteristic smokey flavor. By contrast, Tequila is made from piñas that have been baked or steamed.

After roasting, the hearts are allowed to ferment for a few days before being crushed by a horse-drawn millstone. The pulp and juice is then left to ferment in open-topped containers for a few more days. After that, the mash is transferred to a pot still (often made of simple clay or sometimes copper).

Grinding the Piñas (photo Wikipedia)

Generally, mezcal is only distilled once (versus tequila, which is distilled twice) and the palenquero (or distiller) will know when the process is complete by blowing into a pipette of mezcal and judging the size of the resulting bubbles.

Mezcal is often sweetened and flavored with combinations of sugar, plaintains, pineapple, plums, nuts, bark, and even rice. One particular style of mezcal called Pechuga is distilled with a chicken breast suspended in the mash!

The result of these regional variations is a product which can be tricky to classify. Some mezcal is smooth and smokey, perfect for sipping as you would any fine scotch, and other local spirits are more akin to “white lightning” moonshine of backwoods Kentucky.

Either way, you’re in for a treat.


The Worm Turns

There is a moth called the Hypopta Agavis, which likes to lay its eggs on the agave plant. Somewhere in the 1940s, this gusano, or “worm” became inextricably linked with mezcal when some enterprising bottlers began including a gusano to prove the mezcal was authentic. A marketing ploy, to be sure, but soon the worm became a symbol of mezcal’s potency. Eat the worm and you might gain a little of the agave’s power. Eat the worm and you might even see a vision from the spirits…

It’s a good story, and has sold a lot of mezcal to curious gringos eager for visions from Mayahuel.

Mezcal is sweet and fruity, smokey and complex. Unfortunately, gimmicks and “moonshine” associations as a cheap drink have clouded this fine spirit’s true cultural heritage and reputation as one of the world’s best drinks.


Oaxacan Angel (recipe by Dave Kupchinski)

  • 2 oz. Del Maguey Vida Mezcal
  • 1 tsp agave nectar
  • 1/2 dash Cardamom Bitters
Stir in a mixing glass with ice. Strain into old-fashioned glass over ice, garnish with swath of grapefruit peel. 

Oaxacan Angel (photo by Booze Nerd)

The Oaxacan Angel is one of my favorite cocktails — smokey, citrusy, and satisfying. There aren’t many other ingredients, so use a high-quality mezcal like Del Maguey Vida and sip slowly. If you can’t find the Cardamom bitters in your area (and can’t wait to order them online) you can try the more commonly available grapefruit bitters.


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8 Responses to Forget the Worm: Mysterious Mezcal

  1. Thanks, Andy.

    I find it interesting that the history of alcoholic beverages has been so tied in with world history, and the history of how Mezcal came to be is indicative of that.

    • Andy says:

      Very true Paul!

      What we eat and drink IS world history. There have been some amazing feats of exploration and adventure in the human quest for dinner. We’ve also done some pretty awful things in that quest.

  2. galen dara says:

    Now I love Mezcal even MORE! The history (and the myths) are as fascinating as the flavor. Thank you Andy, for introducing me to it.


  3. Tracie W. says:

    Thank you for this informative post about my favorite smoky spirit (and one of my top five cocktails)!

  4. Aldo Ojeda says:

    Wonderful post.

    I’m a big fan of mezcales. The interesting thing about them is that many regions of México have their own variety according to the maguey grown in there, everyone with its distinctive flavor. Among my favorites are the raicilla in Jalisco, near the tequila region (with a flavor that leaves your mouth dry, or as we call it, agarroso), and the sotol in the north.

    And I have to say, I’ve never had visions after eating gusanos del maguey.

    • Andy Romine says:

      Thanks for the recommendations, Aldo!

      I’m only beginning to learn about all the varieties – and my range isn’t that deep yet. I’m always looking to expand!

      I think the visions of the gusanos are great marketing myths cooked up to sell more mezcal. (Just like the Green Fairy hallucinations of Absinthe — though fortunately there’s no green fairy floating at the bottom of one of those bottles!)


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