Go to YouTube and type in “eat the mezcal worm.” I'll wait.
There are about 2,000 results, many of them not-so-sober folks wincing as they choke down a segmented gusano rojo or a chinicuil worm.
Mezcal is having a moment, and the worm has been cordially uninvited.
Sales of this smoky cousin to tequila have more than doubled in the past couple years. Why?
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“I think that everybody is looking for something that has more flavor than tequila,” says Richard Madison, owner of Agave Mexican Restaurant and Pappy’s Liquors in St. Pete Beach. “They range from mildly smoky and salty, to the more mountainous ones that are full-bodied and smoky, to the mid altitudes where they frequently have more floral notes to them. Tequila is the gateway to mezcal, which has more character and layers of flavor.”
Tequila and mezcal are both made from the agave plant. In the case of mezcal, the plants’ hearts, called pinas, are roasted in wood-fired pits, thus the smokiness. Those roasted pinas are crushed by a stone grinding wheel, often horse-drawn, the juice fermented and then distilled. While tequila must be made only of blue agave, there are more than 30 species of agave plant that are sanctioned in the making of mezcal. So, technically, all tequilas are mezcal but not all mezcals are tequila. Capiche?
Unlike other liquor categories that may have gotten a push by mega-brands and their marketing minions, the growth of mezcal has been organic, often driven by mixologists’ growing passion for it.
The margarita is now one of the most consumed cocktails in the country, and we drink twice as much tequila as they do in Mexico. So, what’s next?
What has made mezcal rise may reflect changing consumer tastes – we are looking for more depth in our cocktails, more juxtapositions of sweet and savory, with smoke a frequent tool in the mixologist’s tool box. Mezcal’s smoky, salty, earthy, vegetal and even meaty qualities seem well-suited to the ever-more-sophisticated artisanal cocktail world.
Prices for mezcal range from about $20 for a 750-milliliter bottle right up to $200. Not cheap, but consider that a third of tequila purchases in the United States now are the ultra-premium category, $35 or more per bottle.
Some environmentalists worry that all this tequila and mezcal enthusiasm could impact agave availability. Many varieties take 35 years to mature, and only the center of the huge plant is used in liquor production.
Mezcal, produced only in Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Michoacan and Puebla in Mexico, can be oak-aged like tequila and offered as a reposado or anejo mezcal, often commanding a higher price. But most of it is “joven mezcal,” which has been aged less than two months.
Regardless of its level of aging, it can be used as tequila would be in a cocktail, but also is frequently consumed neat alongside orange wedges and a mix of sea salt, chile and the ground-up remains of the moth larvae that hang around the agave plant. (See, it’s the worm again, only more subtle.)
Melon, cucumber and citrus all work great with it in cocktails. You can take almost any tequila drink and substitute a nice clean mezcal, and you get these fruity, smoky nuances that you wouldn’t get with tequila.
Worm sold separately.
Mexican lager beer, like Modelo
1 shot mezcal
Clamato, to taste
Hot sauce, 3 or 4 dashes or to taste
Worcestershire sauce, to taste
Soy sauce, to taste
Juice of 1 lime
Mix everything in a glass with a salted rim. This is like a Bloody Mary, more of a freestyle, tinker-as-you-go cocktail.
Yield: 1 (big) drink.