What is Mezcal, and why is there a worm in my glass?

So what the heck is mezcal you might ask? This is for those of you who’ve never drunk the worm, the worm being the real deal, an actual worm you’ll find floating pickled in the bottom of your bottle of mezcal. And how is it different from tequila since they are both made in Mexico from agave, aka maguey? And more to the point, why is there a worm in there and why should I devour the slimy little thing?
Questions, questions. Siddown and pour yourself a shot, and let us answer them for you.

These days, everybody’s an expert on tequila. People know about blends, brands, distilling, barreling, aging, where and when and how it is made. Reposado, anejo, etc. If you don’t know enough and you’d like to learn more, you can jump on a tour out of Puerto Vallarta and get loaded up on (tequila tour) facts and figures easy enough. Here are a couple of options: is one that will pick you up in Vallarta and make a day of it, with a trip to Compostela, sightseeing at Volcan Ceboruco, and a visit to a distillery in the town of Tequila, which lies upcountry from Vallarta, not far off the cuota, or toll road, to Guadalajara. On the other hand if you want to go deeper into tequila lore,  offers a variety of tours focused on different distilleries and ways of experiencing tequila and its history and production. Contact them through the website for information on how to connect.

Mezcal tells us a slightly different story. First, while both tequila and mezcal are made from the agave plant, tequila is only made in Jalisco, while Mezcal is only made in Oaxaca. Officially speaking that is. In truth there are small scale distilleries for both all over Mexico. But those are the official state locales for the two beverages.

Unlike tequila, which mixes well—hence the ubiquitous margarita, the legendary (or at least famously a song title) tequila sunrise—mezcal is meant to be drunk just one way, from a shot glass (or from the bottle, should you so prefer it, and/or if you are after the worm).

That legendary worm is…a critter that lives inside the agave plant from which the mezcal is made. The worm, actually the larva of a specific type of moth, is either red or white, depending on where the plant is growing. The worms are hand-harvested in the rainy summer months, stored in mezcal, then placed in the bottles near the end of the bottling process. But why, one would naturally ask, throw a little dead bug in a bottle of liquor? Well, in Prehispanic times people believed these worms to have aphrodisiac powers….Today the worm is a traditional reminder that the beverage comes from the earth, and that the worm comes from the same agave plant as does the alcoholic beverage you are drinking. Most purists consider mezcal bottled con gusano a gimmick at this point, although “drinking the worm” is certainly an interesting experience (especially since it usually means you’ve already drunk most of the bottle…)

What is Mezcal

The real differences between these two forms of alcoholic beverage emerge in the manufacturing, or distilling, process. While they both come from the agave, which is not actually a cactus but comes from the lily family, they are distilled from different types of agave, or maguey as it is also called. Tequila is distilled from just one type, called Agave Tequilian Weber, while mescal is made from a variety of agaves. In both cases, when the cactus has reached an age of at least 8 years, a flower on a stalk begins to grow. The stalk is cut off, redirecting the energy of growth back into the center of the plant, which then swells up into a bulbous shape. In time the plant is uprooted from the ground, and the long, pointed leaves are whacked off by a guy wielding a long sharp tool called a coa. This leaves that swollen central element, which looks like, and is called, the pineapple.

To produce mescal, hundreds of these “pineapples” are roasted for several days in underground pit ovens—this method is the source of mezcal’s rich, smoky flavor. Once they’re roasted, water is added and the mash is left to ferment in barrels or large vats. Unlike tequila, mescal is usually distilled just once.

Mezcal producers are usually small scale, family operations, not having (yet) gone through the process of transformation into an internationally marketed, branded product with several distinct types for sale, each with its own character. That would be the fate of its sister beverage, tequila. But there are several points in the production of mezcal where flavorings can be added, and changes can be introduced, and so it is possible that in near future dozens of types of mezcal may be available.

Meanwhile, mezcal is medium sized business in Mexico, nothing like the scale of the tequila industry, but that might change in future. It might not be a bad time to invest in mescal futures, actually, since it is a beverage that will be able to withstand all manner of branding, flavoring, and other forms of marketing and specialization without losing its essential “mezcalness”. Remember, many mezcaleros and others in Mexico believe this stuff to be powerful, literal, medicine, a tonic for the body and soul.

These photographs were shot by my friend Spike Mafford, a guy who grew up in Mexico and has spent many years traveling throughout the country. They lend a sense of the family values that still inhere in the industry. Spike has been shooting pictures of mezcaleros for years, most recently to use as artwork for a new Seattle restaurant he’s opening with some Mexican and American friends. The restaurant is a mezcal specialty house, and if you happen to be in Seattle, by all means go. They already did one restaurant featuring tequila—La Carta de Oaxaca–and it is one of Seattle hottest eateries. Has been for years.

You can check out Spike’s work at www.spikemafford.com. Meanwhile enjoy these great Spike Mafford photos of the people who make mezcal, and what they do.

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