Saturday, February 9, 2008

White Lightning: "I Ate the Worm: T-Shirts, Tequila and Mezcal."

And here we go again. Dick Lightning proudly presents a new addition to the team, as Jason !El Guapo Guero Loco! gives us his thoughts on a South of the border staple.

At some point in your life, you have almost certainly seen a stereotypical “party naked co-ed” shirt from Cancún or Tijuana boasting tequila-inspired “I ate the worm” slogans. Available at countless tourist stores and roadside souvenir stands in any Mexican city catering to tourists with more money than sense (or taste), these unfortunate shirts are a chronic hallmark of the week-long drunken orgy known in the US as Spring Break. Featuring bright cartoons of what look like earthworms with giant smiles and sombreros, these silkscreen wonders have spawned popular myths and misconceptions about tequila and tequila drinking. Although I’m generally not a fan of such spectacularly tacky souvenir t-shirts, more to the point is that I don’t like the display of drinking ignorance they perpetuate. But that’s ok, read and learn. If there is one booze I really enjoy it is tequila, and I’m here to help you enjoy it too.

There are two basic things wrong with those shirts. First, although there is a tradition of floating invertebrates in some Mexican liquor, tequila never ever has a worm in it. If you ate the worm, you weren’t drinking tequila, and instead you probably had a smashing hangover from a rougher booze called mezcal. Sometimes spelled “mescal” or “mexcal”, this fiery beverage is closely related to, but distinct from, the more famous tequila. Although mezcal and tequila are both distilled from a group of desert plants called agaves, they are produced from different varieties. Whereas mezcal can be made from a handful of agave varieties, tequila is manufactured from only one kind: Agave tequilana Weber, blue variety. Also called blue agave (in Spanish, agave azul), this plant is famous in the tequila-producing regions of Mexico for the greenish-blue hue of the long, spiky leaves. Mexican tequila distilleries use this type of plant, and only it, when they make tequila, and cultivate huge fields of it in Central Mexico.

Besides the main ingredient, another important difference between tequila and mezcal is how the two are produced. Both liquors are distilled using the extracted plant sugars from agaves, but tequilas are distilled at least twice and are carefully filtered to remove impurities. On the other hand, mezcal is considered finished after one distillation only. As a result, mezcal often has a more bold color and a more pronounced smoky flavor. Although I don’t personally enjoy the smoky taste, which is the result of baking the agave in an underground kiln, it is considered one of the desirable traits of mezcal. Because of the multiple distillations and filtering process of tequila, especially the more refined types, it tends to have a smoother and mellow taste. To me, this is more palatable.

Returning to the sombrero-wearing worm, happily swimming in mezcal (not tequila), brings us to the second basic mistake. The thing floating around in the bottom of a bottle of mezcal is called a maguey worm, but it is in fact not a worm at all. It is really the larva, or caterpillar, phase of life of a moth that lives around agave plants. The “worm” eats agave leaves before it transforms into its adult form, and in large numbers can devastate agave crops. Some mezcal producers insist that because the caterpillars eat agave leaves, they absorb the “essence” of the plant and enhance the flavor of the liquor. Although on mezcal plantations the insects are collected and bred, they are destroyed in fields dedicated to tequila production because they weaken the plants.

The tacky t-shirts that the next-door fraternity picked up while binging south of the border only function to conflate tequila and mezcal. Mezcals tend to be cheaper than even cheap tequila because of the wider variety of agaves and shorter period of distillation that are involved in production, and as a result are easier on the bankrolls of college kids who just flew 1,200 miles to party in Mexico. So, it tends to be bought and drunk more often if you are a drinker on a budget and don’t know any better.

If your face crinkled up into an expression of disgust after taking a drink of mezcal, like mine did, savor the memory of having tried something new and different. However, I would also encourage you in trying something else new and different: a nice shot glass of 100% agave azul tequila meant for sipping, not shooting. You’ll be surprised at the difference, and you won’t even have to worry about the worm. Salúd!
Tequila suggestions:
One of my personal favorites is Gran Centenario Añejo. Aged in oak barrels for at least a year, this mellow tequila is a fantastic (if somewhat expensive) buy. Worth every penny, I like to savor the taste of this spirit completely by itself, no salt, no limes, and one sip at a time. Tastes great with tortilla chips and a salsa loaded with chopped cilantro.
A cheaper alternative is Sauza Hornitos, a brand of mid-range tequila you can find in any decent liquor store. It’s not bad if you like to do tequila shots, jello shots, body shots, what-have-you. It makes for a great mixer and I like to use it when I make my own margaritas.