If you’ve ever traveled to Mexico, you may have seen or heard of an alcoholic drink that contains an insect inside the bottle. You immediately think of a worm floating around in tequila. Then you jump to another thought, “is that thing actually alive??”
No, it isn’t — but there are actually several reasons why this question itself is wrong. The first reason is that the creature you see at the bottom of the tequila bottle isn’t a worm at all, but a kind of caterpillar. The second reason is that this caterpillar is sitting in a bottle of mezcal, not tequila. Mezcal is a drink made from a blend of fermented agave plants — and tequila is mainly made from one agave — the blue agave. The final reason is that the caterpillar has been harvested, cooked, and placed in mezcal during the bottling process. It just isn’t alive.
Confused? Don’t worry. This article will explore the details of the popular “tequila worm” misconception.
Not a Worm, But a Caterpillar
Though the animal at the bottom of your bottle (or glass) may look like a worm, it is actually one of two types of moth caterpillars. In Spanish, they are known as gusano del maguey, or “worms of the Maguey plant.” The Maguey plant is also known as Agave, American Aloe, or the Sentry plant, a short, broad-leafed type of agave.
At any rate, though their Spanish name gusano (worm) is still a misnomer. It doesn’t change the fact that these are caterpillars from the moths Aegiale hesperiaris and Comadia redtenbacheri. These moths lay their eggs on the Maguey (and other) plants, and the caterpillars hatch and eat the Maguey.
The gusanos rojos, or red worms, are the caterpillars of Comadia redtenbacheri. They eat the leaves of the Maguey, as well as form masses in the core and roots of the plant.
The gusanos de oro, or gold worms (also known as white worms) are the caterpillars of Aegiale hesperiaris. They are more likely to eat only the leaves of Maguey.
Both types of caterpillars are harvested for consumption in Mexico. Though they can be eaten raw, they can also be served braised or deep-fried and seasoned with lime and salt.
Not Tequila, But Mezcal
So what is the alcoholic drink that these caterpillars find themselves in? It’s Mezcal, which is like any hard liquor and can be sipped or taken as a shot.
Mezcal is a spirit that is produced from the Agave plant. Though it can be a blend of several species of Agave, most of the time Mezcal is made from an Agave plant known in Spanish as Espadin (or Agave angustifolia).
Espadin is common in several Mexican states, most notably Oaxaca, where most Mezcal is produced. Farmers harvest Espadin hearts and they are smoked, fermented, and distilled into Mezcal.
Tequila is a type of Mezcal. But Tequila has to be at least 51% Blue Agave (suitably known scientifically as Agave tequilana) and produced in the Mexican state of Jalisco.
According to the Mexican regulatory authority Normas Oficiales Mexicanas (NOM), it is against government regulations to add larvae or insects to Tequila.
So if you see a gusano in the bottom of a bottle, it is most likely in a bottle of Mezcal.
The Caterpillar Isn’t Alive
The gusano or gusanos — red or white — are added to Mezcal when the drink is finally bottled. The gusanos have most likely been cooked well before they are added.
If they haven’t been cooked, they probably don’t survive submerged in alcohol all that well.
But that’s probably beside the point. Some people believe the gusano to be an aphrodisiac or a hallucinogenic. Others believe that consuming it proves the drinker’s strength or virility. And yet others believe the addition of gusano to the Mezcal to be a marketing ploy by distiller Jacobo Losano Paez, who himself believed the caterpillar altered the drink’s flavor.
Studies have shown that the gusano actually does transform the chemical properties of the Mezcal — if even by just a little bit. It has been found that gusano–laden Mezcals tend to have more unsaturated alcohols than caterpillar-free Mezcal.
A compound named cis-3-Hexen-1-ol (or C6-H12-0) is one of these substances. It is a grassy-smelling alcohol that some species use as a pheromone (though its aphrodisiac properties have yet to be demonstrated in humans).
What happens when you eat it?
There aren’t any known side effects after eating the caterpillar. People who have eaten the worm, either chewing it or swallowing it whole, also say that they do not hallucinate as some may believe.
Eating the caterpillar won’t make you more drunk, at least not significantly. It is true that it has been soaking in the mezcal for quite awhile, but the caterpillar itself really won’t have any major effects.
If you do happen to eat it, the only real effect that may happen is that it will make you feel more macho. But again, this is merely an urban legend.
Does all mezcal have the worm (caterpillar)?
No, not all mezcal comes with a worm in the bottle.
Popular brands of mezcal that don’t have the worm include:
- Del Maguey Chichicapa Mezcal
- Montelobos Mezcal Joven
- Doña Vega Espadín
- Rey Campero Tepextate Mezcal
Brands that do have the caterpillar:
- Mezcal Oro de Oaxaca
- Monte Alban Mezcal Con Gusano
- Gusano Rojo Mezcal
Mezcal Oro de Oaxaca is made in Matatlán, Oaxaca. Not only does the bottle come with a caterpillar inside, but it also comes with a bag of worm salt which is made with salt, chile along with roasted and ground maguey worms.
Another brand with a worm inside is Monte Alban Mezcal Con Gusano. Monte Alban has been in the mezcal business for a long time. Many distributors and beverage stores carry this brand, as it is the most widespread in the U.S.
Gusano Rojo Mezcal is another that is produced in Santiago Matatlan. One reviewer says that the worm has an infusion of caramel, which may affect the purist taste of the mezcal.
At the very least, gusanos can be considered an intriguing novelty in the world (and bottles) of Mezcal. But there is no need for concern when downing this drink — you’re closer to dead caterpillars than live worms.