The Worm in Tequila Bottles, Explained
You may have heard an “expert” friend talk about how truly authentic tequila has a worm floating at the bottom of the bottle. Or maybe you’ve spotted a dusty bottle of Monte Alban (a mezcal that infamously contains said worm) at a dive where patrons joke about downing the worm as a test of machismo. But before you get duped by any of the myths surrounding this seemingly traditional practice, let’s set a few things straight, starting with why there’s a worm in tequila bottles: There isn’t.
You won’t find any insects floating in any bottle of tequila (unless they’ve been invaded by thirsty critters while you weren’t looking), but rather in tequila’s sibling agave spirit, mezcal. And the so-called “worm” isn’t a worm at all, but rather a moth larva. The species, gusano de maguey, actually calls the agave plant home before it transforms into a moth.
The gusano began appearing in commercial bottles sometime around the 1940s or ‘50s. There are a few competing origin stories floating around the internet, but none are entirely believable. One claims that mezcal entrepreneur Jacobo Lozano Páez conceived the practice because he believed the gusano helped the flavor of the mezcal. Alternatively, mezcal brands may have added the larvae as proof that their spirits contained enough alcohol to pickle the insects. More likely, it’s all one big marketing gimmick to help bottom shelf brands sell inferior mezcal on shock value alone.
We highly suggest you forego shooting the larva, but don’t dump the critter just yet. Mexican chefs often incorporate gusano de maguey into dishes, and the fried version makes for a great drinking snack alongside tequila. For a traditional insect accompaniment to your agave spirit, find (or make) some sal de guasano, aka worm salt, which mixes the ground larvae with salt and chile flakes for a spicy, earthy condiment. Mezcal drinkers traditionally serve the salt atop orange slices beside neat pours of mezcal, but feel free to sub in tequila. Simply alternate sips of your preferred blanco or reposado with bites of the citrusy, wormy sidecar.