Childhood memories from re-runs of 1970's Merrie Melodies cartoons illicit images of South of the Border tequila drinkers on siesta, gulping down the last sip in the bottle and challenging each other to "eat the worm." One of the MANY faults that these animators brought to the screen is that you would never find a worm in a bottle of tequila. In fact, purists argue the only place you would ever find the worm is in a bottle of mezcal. But what is mezcal and how is it different than tequila?
The answer is fairly simple.
First of all, by law tequila can only be made with one variety of agave: blue agave. Mezcal can be made with over 30 different types of agave, though most is made with agave espadin. In accordance with these guidelines, technically all tequila is a mezcal. There is also the issue of region. Tequila is produced in five different regions of Mexico with Jalisco as its Mecca; while Mezcal is made in eight regions of the country with almost 90% of production centering in Oaxaca.
What really separates tequila and mezcal, and is the main component in their flavor differences, is the process in which they are produced. Most mezcal drinkers note its smoky, scotch-like flavor as the reason why they prefer it over tequila. And, it is very obvious how it gets that favor when you look at how it’s produced. The harvesting stage is essentially the same between the two spirits; just using different agave varietals. Once harvested, tequila is most commonly cooked down in autoclaves, large stainless steel industrial ovens. On the other hand, mezcal is made in the same way as it has been for hundreds of years. The agave is cooked in an underground earthen pit. The conically-shaped pit, typically ten feet wide and ten feet deep, is lined with volcanic rock. A wood fire is started at the bottom of the pit, heating the rocks to extreme temperatures. The agave pinas (the agave plant once the leaves are removed) are then tossed into the pit and covered with earth. These pinas will cook and caramelize over days of cooking, lending them a smoky flavor. Once removed from the “oven”, the old school process continues as the pinas are crushed using a tahona, a large stone wheel dragged around in a circle by a horse or donkey. Tres originale.
As far as the worm goes, the agave worm is actually a butterfly larvae fairly invasive to the agave crops. Often still in the agave when distilled, it was added to some mezcals in the 1950’s as a gimmick, with tales of hallucinogenic properties and raging machismo. Worm or no, the handcrafted flavor of a true mezcal is as good as it gets.