My Fellow Inebriates,
For a long time I thought the worm in our little bottle of mescal was just hibernating, or that it was some sort of aquatic worm enjoying a swimming medium much more awesome than ordinary water. But I’ve noticed, having checked up on it periodically for four or five years, that it’s not moving. And I don’t think it’s asleep.
How did it come to be in there? It’s a mystery, isn’t it? Just like a ship in a bottle, I commented to my mother, who pedantically pointed out the relative skill involved in constructing a model of an intricate sailing vessel inside a bottle as opposed to dropping moth larvae through a hole.
So it didn’t decide to be in there? Certainly not, it turns out. It’s not as though mescal and tequila producers have to turn away lineups of insect aspirants to bottom-dwelling alcoholic glory; on the contrary, bottlers put them in there as a gimmick. The larvae enjoy eating the agave plant, which is used to make mescal. In fact, tons of those little suckers end up in the agave brew during production and are credited with imparting some of the famous nastiness that characterizes mescal. (Old mescal recipes call for a chicken/turkey breast to be placed in the mash during fermentation but presumably larvae are more cost-effective, since they’re along for the ride anyway.)
Mescal is so famously nasty that bartenders have struggled to incorporate it into palatable drinks. While it enjoyed a stunt-style college popularity for many years, which had more to do with the worm than its smoky, off-putting flavor, mescal has failed to capture more sophisticated market share.
Nor does it have a signature drink the way tequila does the margarita and rum the daiquiri. Why is that?
Well, I would certainly tell you if I could get my little bear-sized bottle open. But my sources tell me it tastes like ass. In fact, one of our family’s medical-type friends advises against drinking it because it will make us sick. That’s all very well for my parents, who have work and childcare obligations, but there’s no reason I shouldn’t sample it.
But back to the worm, which isn’t a worm but the larva of a butterfly. Bright coral naturally, its mescal bath leaches the color out of it, turning it pale pink or off-white. Despite the misconception that all mescal brands include dead arthropods, only those from Oaxaca feature the bugs. And whether or not they impart a desirable flavor, one thing’s sure: they’re not an ancient tradition. Mescal has been bottled con gusano only since 1950, when Mexican entrepreneur Jacobo Lozano Paez tapped into the time-honored marketing tactic of reconceptualizing a liability (caterpillar infestation of agave plants) as a benefit—suckering untold millions of American college students into chugging not only his vile-tasting mescal but chowing down on deceased larvae to boot. Sure, those larvae have reputed aphrodisiacal effects, but OMG, so do bananas and asparagus, people.
Which doesn’t change the fact that I want to get this little blue bottle of mine open. Can you believe it? My parents actually gave it to me several years ago for Christmas—my very own bottle. And they won’t open it for me.