Mezcal, Worms and Rites of Passage 

This time of year often sees hordes of college students crossing the border en route to Mexican resorts in search of a little R&R. The annual rite of passage called "Spring Break" is responsible for not only many fresh scenes for the latest edition of Girls Gone Wild, but also for unwanted pregnancies, STDs and a critical mass of hangovers. The masses of crapulous college students will usually imbibe anything, but often the spirit of choice is tequila, or something like it.

Unfortunately, it pains me to no end when I hear the youth of today ask each other, "Did you eat the worm?" Let's clear something up right away. Tequila does not have a worm in the bottle. If you find a worm in a bottle of tequila it is either a gimmick and most likely black market tequila (not to mention illegal under Mexican law), or you may have found your golden ticket, much like the urban myth of the mouse in a Coke can. But try taking that to a Mexican court.

Worms can be found in bottles of mezcal. And even then, some high-end mezcals have dispensed of the little critter altogether. First, what is mezcal? Perhaps we can use a brandy analogy. All Cognacs are brandies, made from a distillate of grapes, but not all brandies are Cognacs, those being produced in a governmentally defined region in France. The same holds true for mezcals. All Tequilas are by definition, mezcals, but not all mezcals are Tequilas, those being produced in a specific region in Mexico.

Mezcals also differ as they may be made with agave cactus plants other than the blue agave that Tequila is required by law to use. In the past decade or so, distillers of mezcal, most regionally focused in and around the Mexican state of Oaxaca, have been producing higher quality versions of the spirit that rival it's more popular amigo Tequila.

One common myth about mescal is that it is not related to mescaline, a hallucinogen from the mescal cactus, in any way, shape or form. This is another urban legend perpetuated by college students seeking out that "alternative" spring break experience. I must admit, though, in my youth I do recollect seeing things my drinking buddies didn't after downing a bottle of the Mexican moonshine. I had flashbacks to a scene out of the movie Poltergeist and it was quite scary.

How the worm got in the bottle, however, is the fodder for heated debate. There are two types of worms that can be found in mezcal, guasano rojo (Cossus redtenbachi) the red worm and gusano blanco (Acentrocneme hesperiaris Wilk) the white worm. Both worms live their entire lives on the agave plant, usually the same succulent as used in the distillate of the spirit. Pseudo-connoisseurs say that the white worm is more tasty due to its higher fat content, but true connoisseurs avoid bottles with the worm altogether.

Arguments to its presence range from the worm acting as an alcohol hydrometer (the level at which it floats indicating alcohol content, or if it rots and disintegrates then the alcohol content is way too low) to a stamp of authentication, that the presence of the worm in the bottle indicates that this is, in fact, distilled from the agave plant in which the worm came from. That doesn't explain one of the most popular bottles of mezcal behind any spring break resort's bar. A brand simply translated as "1,000 worms" explains it all.

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