A mezcal worm is an insect larva found in some types of mezcal produced in Oaxaca, Mexico. The larva is usually either a gusano rojo ("red worm") or a chinicuil ("maguey worm"), the caterpillar of the Hypopta agavis moth.
The other variety of "worm" in mezcal is the larva of a weevil known as picudo del agave, Scyphophorus acupunctatus, the agave snout weevil, that infests certain species of yucca and maguey. They are not related to edible maguey worms (in reality moth larva) of central Mexico.
The weevil is a pest that can severely damage agave plants, by eating the plant to death from the inside. If only a few infest the plant, they can still carry and infect the plant with harmful bacteria leading to plant death. In some cases, up to 40% of a maguey harvest has been lost to weevil infestations. Infection-resistant varieties of the plant are being developed.
Picudo larvae may be roasted and eaten; they are a seasonal specialty of markets in southeastern Mexico.
Although the custom is relatively recent, larvae are used frequently by several brands of mezcal to give flavor to the drink. A whole larva is deposited in the bottle, normally after having previously been cured in pure alcohol. Nacional Vinicola (NAVISA) was the first company to add a worm to its Gusano Rojo mezcal. Andres Paniagua and Jacobo Lozano, creators of Gusano Rojo and Dos Gusanos, first introduced the practice of adding larva to mezcal. Today there are several brands doing this.
Mezcal, or mescal, is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from the maguey plant (a form of agave, Agave americana) native to Mexico. The word mezcal comes from Nahuatl mexcalli [meʃ'kalːi] metl [met͡ɬ] and ixcalli [iʃ'kalːi] which means "oven-cooked agave".
The maguey grows in many parts of Mexico, though most mezcal is made in Oaxaca. There is a saying attributed to Oaxaca regarding the drink: "para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también" ("for everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good, as well").
It is unclear whether distilled drinks were produced in Mexico before the Spanish Conquest. The Spaniards were introduced to native fermented drinks such as pulque, also made from the maguey plant. Soon the conquistadors began experimenting with the maguey plant to find a way to make a distillable fermented mash. The result was mezcal.
Today, mezcal is still made from the heart of the maguey plant, called the "piña", much the same way it was 200 years ago, in most places. In Mexico, mezcal is generally consumed straight and has a strong smoky flavor. Though mezcal is not as popular as tequila (a mezcal made specifically from the blue agave in select regions of the country), Mexico does export the product, mostly to Japan and the United States, and exports are growing.