I remember watching Hanna-Barbera cartoons when I was little and seeing the empty bottle of alcohol with the triple X on the label and the worm smiling out from the bottom. The person who had consumed the spirit inside would be wearing a cowboy hat as well as a dark mustache. I had no idea what had been in the bottle, but I remember thinking that worm must be one tough cookie.
Turns out those worms were originally used to help test the strength (and safety) of the spirit before hydrometers and other analytical equipment was developed – just like how the sailors used to light their rum on fire to make sure it hadn’t been diluted. If the worm pickled and was preserved, the spirit was good. If the worm decayed, the spirit had to be re-distilled.
Contrary to popular belief, the spirit in question is mescal, not tequila. All tequilas are mescals, but not all mescals are tequilas. Sure, they’re both Mexican and made from agave (which is NOT in the cactus family), but here are some differences:
- Mescal is made from a number of different agave varieties, while tequila only uses the blue variety of agave.
- The agave used to make tequila is cooked using ovens or autoclaves, while the agave used to make mescal is cooked in underground ovens using charcoal. The smokiness imparted from this charcoal accounts for the major taste difference between tequila and mescal.
- Traditionally, mescal was distilled once and tequila twice. Most mescal on the Mexican market today though has been distilled twice, too.
- Tequila is originally from the Jalisco state in Mexico and mescal is from the Oaxaca State.
So, where did these worms come from? The worms are moth larva and live inside the agave plants. Two types are found – a white one called blanco and a red one called rojo. The white worm prefers the leaves, while the red one lives closer to the roots. I guess enough people found the worm as charming as I did because now they’re grown commercially for inclusion in mescal bottling.