Why is there a worm in bottles of tequila?

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Dear Cecil: The other night I was talking with a friend who worked at a bar in Arizona where most of the hicks got shots of tequila. As they got drunker they would ask to have “the worm” (bleagh) along with their shot. My questions are: What kind of worm is that thing? Does drinking/eating the worm make you drunker? And how did the worm end up in the tequila? Beth L. Grover, via the Internet

Cecil replies:

You probably think this is some ancient Mexican tradition, right? Not unless your idea of ancient is 1950. We even know who invented the practice. Various reasons are given for it, but I say it all boils down to: Let’s see if we can get the gringos to eat worms.

First let’s get a few things straight. There’s no worm in tequila, or at least there isn’t supposed to be. Purists (hah!) say the worm belongs only in a related product, mescal. Strictly speaking, mescal is a generic term meaning any distillate of the many species of agave (or maguey) plant, tequila included. Today, however, mescal is popularly understood to mean a product bottled in the region around the city of Oaxaca. For years this stuff was basically home-brewed firewater consumed by the locals, but in 1950, Mexico City entrepreneur Jacobo Lozano Paez hit on the idea of putting a worm in each bottle as a marketing gimmick. Stroke of genius, eh? I don’t get it either, but that’s what separates us from the visionaries.

The critter in question is the agave worm, which is actually a butterfly larva. The worms bore into the agave plant’s pineapplelike heart, and quite a few get cooked up in the brew used to make mescal. Far from being grossed out, Jacobo concluded that the worm was an essential component of the liquor’s flavor and color. He may also have figured, Hey, mescal is about as palatable as paint remover, and the only people who are going to drink this stuff are macho lunatics, so why not take it to the max? In fairness, the worms were also said to have aphrodisiac properties, and worms and bugs are sometimes consumed in Mexico as a delicacy. (Supposedly this dates back to the Aztecs.) At any rate, the ploy worked and the worm in the bottle is now a firmly established tradition.

The genuine agave worm is a bright coral color, which fades to pink in the bottle. Some bottlers substitute a species of white worm that lives in the leaves of the agave plant. Connoisseurs complain that the white worm isn’t as tasty as the red one, which to me is like complaining that your soup contains the wrong species of fly. To me the whole thing seems pretty silly. I’ve had a sip or three of mescal in my day, and my feeling is, if you want to get sick, who needs a worm?

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.