The History of the Agave Worm
Mezcal and Tequila have long been associated with a worm (“Gusano” or "Mezcal con Gusano”). There are myths that persist that all tequila and mezcal are made with a worm at the end, and there are other myths that no agave distiller uses the worm, even though the bottle of Mezcal says “con Gusano” orr with worm.
Rather, the Agave Worm is still one of the misunderstood additions to blue agave-based spirits on the market and is a question many if not most bartenders still misunderstand to this day.
The Agave Worm: “chinicuil” and "meocuiles”
There are two type of worms that infest Agave and are used in Mezcal. The first, are white maguey worms, known as meocuiles. These are caterpillars of a butterfly and they not only deposit their eggs in the leaves of the Agave, but the caterpillars live off the surrounding flesh and leaves from the plant. If they’re particularly hungry and there’s a lot of them, they may eat so much that the plant itself be nothing more than an empty husk.
The second worm that infests agave is the Chinicuil, or the red maguey worm. It is a larvae of a moth and another longstanding parasite of the Blue Agave Plant. The Chinicuil infest the roots of the fruit and live inside it, living and breeding for years to come. The infestation can become so bad sometimes, that a huge mass of worms can exist inside a single fruit as soon as it is opened up.
Chinicuil is also considered a delicacy in Mexico, it’s flavor is said to be superior to the meocuiles and is regularly eaten fried or baked in a host of dishes: be it pizza, tacos, or in burgers.
The occurrence of both these worms and their proximity to agave have made them synonymous with Mezcal.
The Marketing Behind the Worm
Jacobo Lozano Paez is credited with inventing the addition of the worm in Mezcal in the 1940s, selling them mostly in the 1950s. He believed that the addition of the worm was a great boost to flavor and sold it as such, however, it didn't end there. Other distillers picked up on the success of his Tequila and as a result a host of urban legends started including, but not limited to:
A mandatory addition to ensure that there’s a substantial amount of alcohol and create trust for the consumer.
A hallucinogenic additive that enhanced the effects of alcohol.
A cultural tradition in Mexico that had been exercised by Aztec priests for centuries.
Whatever the case, the exoticness of drinking worms in a spirit was something that mesmerized tourists from abroad and helped jumpstart the popularity of both Mezcal and Tequila. Partially as a result of this incredible marketing campaign done in Mexico, both Tequila and Mezcal have cemented themselves a place in almost every spirit store across the world.