The real reason there’s a worm in your mezcal

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Lou Bank is the founder of SACRED, a non-profit corporation that helps improve the quality of life in rural Mexican communities where heritage agave spirits are made. He is also co-host of Agave Road Trip (with Chava Periban), a podcast that helps bartenders better understand agave, agave spirits, and rural Mexico, and the author of El Gusanoa comic about a boy who transforms into a human-sized gusano.


“The smoked tequila with the worm in it.”

It’s what most people thought mezcal was a few decades ago, because it’s all that was available outside of the rural Mexican communities where it’s made. And although the “mezcal con gusano” is less than 8% of what’s on the market today, it’s still quite common for people to think of mezcal as “that thing with the worm”. Which begs the question…

Who thought it was a good idea to put a gusano in mezcal?

First of all, it’s not really a worm. It’s more of a larva or larva – you know, the thing that turns into a moth. It’s usually a red, although sometimes you’ll see the whites in mezcal. I could tell you that red is the species comadia redtenbacheri and that the white grub, which is the one commonly found feeding on agave, is aegiale hesperiaris. But really… red and white.

Why do they put the gusano in the mezcal?

In Mexico, the gusano can be considered a delicacy when prepared properly. I had a plate of seared and seasoned gusanos at the four-star Casareyna in Puebla Centro years ago and this dish brings me back on every trip. But you don’t have to go the four-star route to find gusanos on the menu in Mexico — they’ve been a staple for centuries.

When did gusanos make their way into agave spirits?

Search the internet and one answer comes up quite frequently: that Jacobo Lozano Paez came up with the idea in 1950 as a marketing angle for his brand, Mezcal Gusano de Oro. Don’t throw a fellow Chicagoan under the bus, but it looks like it false narrative started with “The Straight Dope” columnist Cecil Adams in a 1999 article.

Why is this a fake story? Gusano de Oro was trademark in 1948, so it happened two years before Adams’ claim in 1950. Also, the competing brand Legitimo Mezcal de Oaxaca con su Propio Gusano (yes, that’s a mouthful) was filed in 1944. As its name suggests, it also included “the Earthworm.”

So the gusano wasn’t a marketing ploy?

It is possible it’s a marketing ploy and it just started with Legitimo or an earlier brand. Like much of rural Mexico’s beautiful cultural heritage, there is little to no documentation to support any of the theories.

Until 1994, almost every bottle of mezcal legally exported to the United States contained a gusano. Or sometimes two. Next, Ron Cooper filled us in on heritage agave spirits with his Del Maguey Mezcal. It sparked the world’s interest in the breadth and depth of traditional mezcal. The mere use of this expression, however – “traditional mezcal” – suggests, in this context, that mezcal con gusano is not traditional.

Maestro mezcalero Eduardo Angeles de Lalocura has a different view. Lalo, as his friends call him, believes the practice dates back a hundred years or more. “My theory is that mezcal with gusano originated shortly after the Mexican Revolution,” he says. “It may have also been done before that, but it became very widespread after the revolution. I think it has to do with religious festivals in cities honoring the patron saint of each city.

Recuerdo Mezcal is one of the few recent mezcal brands to embrace gusano.

Recuerdo Mezcal

So adding the gusano is a great Mexican tradition?

Is it? Obviously we can verify that a commercial product existed at least in 1944, courtesy of Legitimo Mezcal, and maybe they weren’t the first. But until Mariano Azuela’s 1949 novel Sendas Perdidas, all published references I could find that include both “mezcal” and “gusano” are distinct and culinary in nature; Basically, someone went to Mexico, drank mezcal and ate gusanos. The fact that gusanos were presented for eating and yet nowhere appear to be in mezcal suggests that, perhaps until the 1940s, no one was putting gusanos in mezcal for commercial purposes.

But there’s also a rich history of mezcaleros adding stuff to their mezcal, both during and after distillation. Sometimes it is for medicinal purposes, where the supplement is most often plants; sometimes it is for ceremonial or festive purposes, where it is most often fruit and protein, such as turkey or chicken. And there are also a lot of crossovers between these two objectives.

Given how many times I’ve been told that gusanos are an aphrodisiac, it’s not hard to imagine that someone, somewhere would have tossed gusanos into their finished mezcal to make one medicinal extract for erectile dysfunction — viagra wine, If you want. Or threw some of the gusanos that live off their agave into the still to make a pechuga which forces the larvae to earn a living.

To be clear, this is speculative. To a large extent, this is just speculation. Here’s another theory: The Mexican government asked farmers to send them samples of insects that were infesting their crops. “If the specimens have a soft body (like worms),” they wrote in Agricultura Técnica in Mexico, Volume 1, “they should be placed in a bottle with alcohol, tequila, mezcal, or 10% formalin. Before sending the copies to our offices, add enough cotton or Kleenex paper inside the container to absorb the liquid. This way the insects will be kept moist and in case the bottle breaks in the mail there is no risk of the liquid spilling out.

However, this call for larvae was published in 1955, long after Legitimo Mezcal was on the market. But it’s not hard to imagine that this was a long-standing policy of the Mexican government, especially after the Mexican Revolution, which returned farmland to indigenous peoples. So maybe this was an established policy in the 1920s? And an agavero kept pushing back his sample of gusano… and then finally drank it?

It’s also worth noting that you don’t see mezcal con gusano made outside of Oaxaca. (I didn’t, anyway.) But I’ve seen mezcal with a scorpion in the bottle, in Durango, and that seems to be a reflection of Oaxaca’s practice of gusano.

And then there is xumiline. Damian Meneses of El Tigre speculates that gusano was likely dropped into mezcal bottles long before it was released. His theory is based on what he saw in his native Guerrero with another pest: the xumilin, or chumin, a sort of bug from south of the border. In parts of Guerrero they sometimes throw one into a bottle of mezcal the same way Oaxacan people throw gusano.

“Once in a while, when you cut [agave]you can find a xumilin or two in and around the plant, and usually there is mezcal available for those doing this harvesting work. [agave],” he says. “So sometimes the workers drop a xumilin into the mezcal.” So maybe it’s kind of like an ad hoc spice made on the fly (pun intended) for your mezcal? workers? That seems plausible.

Can gusano spice up other drinks?

Why yes! Agave can produce distilled and fermented beverages. Spirits like mezcal and tequila are made by fermenting the cooked hearts of agave. But if you don’t want to bother cooking the plant, you can just dig a huge hole in its center and harvest a cool, sweet sap. This sap will ferment into a delicious pulque. It’s common to mix pulque with fruit to make what they call “curados,” a drink that would dethrone smoothies as the fitness drink of choice if it weren’t so volatile. But Mexican foodies didn’t just add fruit to their pulque. As pulque researcher Gonzalo Alvarez says, “I have seen and tasted pulque which is prepared with worms, chili peppers and salt that have been ground with a mortar and pestle. So I guess you could call it “pulque de gusano”.

The final world on the gusano

Are gusanos a gimmick, a tradition, a resource to maximize flavor or to mask the imperfections of mezcal? Should we denounce, embrace or simply study the worm to better understand the history of mezcal? Most likely, gusano slipped into these bottles to remind us that Mexico’s culinary history is diverse and conflicted, influenced by religion, local and global markets, regional taste, and sheer improvisation. The artisans who make what we call mezcal, tequila, or agave spirits are always hard at work learning more about the resources they have and how to incorporate them into their age-old traditions. The gusano is there to tell us that the spirits of agave are and have always been on the move.

And now, here are five mezcal con gusanos that I recommend:

Additional reporting by Chava Periban

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