TEN YEARS AGO, the popular American image of drinking mezcal would have been of a rough customer sitting in a seedy bar, downing shooters of something that tasted like distilled glass and then, at the end of the night, tipping the bottle back and eating the worm. But drinking mezcal these days is a high-end experience, more likely involving tasting flights and Oaxacan-influenced tapas and huitlacoche shooters, and there is nary a worm to be seen, which is actually a shame.
But more about that later.
Mezcal is Oaxaca’s contribution to the world of spirits, a liquor made of distilled juice of the agave plant: a succulent, much like aloe vera or the century plant, that looks like the dinosaur version of a flower. Mezcal is a descendant of the Aztecs’ fermented pulque, made of fermented agave sap, and “tequila,” strictly speaking, is only the most readily available, commodified and in many ways least interesting kind of mezcal.
To be called “tequila,” mezcal must come from the region of Jalisco around the city of Tequila, and be made from a specific strain of blue agave (Weber azul) that has, as a result of commercial need, been inbred and grafted and grows increasingly subject to the diseases and fungi of monocrops. Chosen probably because it has the highest sugar content of the agaves, blue agave is steamed in industrial ovens, and the juice extracted to create tequila’s relatively clean profile, which blends well into mixed drinks. Because of the Tequila region’s sweetheart deal with the Mexican government, for decades, mass-produced spirits labeled “tequila” were the only kind of mezcal you could get in the United States.
Tequila, like vodka, is a perfectly serviceable bar spirit, great for mixed drinks and splashing into sauces. But for sipping, there are roughly 30 other kinds of agave that can be made alcoholic, the flavors varying by region and type. Because of how it’s manufactured, mezcal even can vary batch to batch. They have character, provenance, even terroir.
To make traditional mezcal, the agave lobes are roasted in a pit under hot rocks like a luau pig, and handcrafted in small batches in Mexican villages, imparting often-strong smoky flavors, as if Scotch whisky and tequila had a baby: wilder, more feral and more interesting than almost any tequila.
All this artisanal small batch-ness means mezcals tend to be a little pricey, and these days, they are more likely found on the top shelf of any bar. Joven mezcal is unaged, and tends to taste cleaner, while reposado or añejo is given time to mature into something even more interesting, like fine wine or Monica Bellucci.
But in none of these mezcals are you likely to find worms. Too bad, really, because they’re delicious. Not the mummified ones you might find soaking in the bottoms of rotgut mezcal bottles — originally placed there as a marketing scheme to sell cheap liquor — but the ones you order on purpose, as dinner. The worms themselves are actually caterpillars — specifically, the larva of a moth called the gusano de maguey. They come in the red or white variety, both of which are a delicacy in Mexico, a protein source with Aztec roots often served crunchy-fried, often as taco filling, maybe with a shot of mezcal and lime to wash them down.