The Worm Turns

The rare pleasures of high-end mezcal

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I once dated a girl who won a drinking contest by draining a half dozen airplane bottles of mezcal and eating the drunken, preserved worm at the bottom of each. Did some of her hardcore bar cred rub off on me? Hardly. I'll stick to worm-free liquor. I'll stick to good mezcal.

Mezcal has lived in the shadow cast by its considerably more popular brother tequila for the past 50 years. The old adage is "all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila," which means that tequila felt the need to change its name in order to avoid being embarrassed by its low-class family.

That's just one of the hurdles that mezcal has to overcome here in the U.S. Like tequila, mezcal is made from the fermented juice of the agave (also called "maguey") plant, but tequila comes from a very specific geographic area and can only contain the highly prized and commercially branded "blue" agave. Mezcal can be made across a large swath of Mexico by just about anyone with a garden and a working knowledge of fermentation and distillation. Tequila has good marketing and celebrity endorsement, from Bing Crosby to Jimmy Buffett. Mezcal has, well, a worm.

The origin of the worm (actually a larval moth) is up for debate. Some say it's supposed to be an indication of potency: the better preserved the worm, the more jolt in the juice. Others suggest it's meant to demonstrate that the liquor is made from that particular worm's home — the agave plant — or because it makes the mezcal taste better. I'm voting for the potency angle.

These days, the worm is a rotgut novelty item that largely exists to be forced down the throats of frat pledges. But a few specialty mezcal producers have seen the light; perhaps realizing that once Sammy Hagar started hawking tequila Americans would be ready for something a little less passé. They've gone beyond the worm to create something truly worthwhile. Sure, 99 percent of the mezcal produced is still meant to be inexpensive hooch, but that other 1 percent is as good as alcohol gets.

What's the difference between wormy dreck and liquid gold? It all boils down to how you treat the juice. Most high-end mezcal is handcrafted instead of mass-produced, usually using agave plants from small, defined "villages" in the province of Oaxaca. Just like "single vineyard" wines, different geographical and environmental conditions impart distinctly unique flavors to the final product.

Old-fashioned production techniques also increase the complexity of mezcal, with smoky, peaty notes from the wood-burning earthen ovens used to cook the heart of the maguey plant, and caramelized — almost sweet — tones from its long slow, roast. Premium mezcal is also fermented two or three times — just like Scotch or Irish whiskey —to smooth rough edges without destroying flavor.

Many are bottled immediately — labeled "blanco" — while still fresh and full of bright citrus and herbaceous flavors. Some are aged in oak, which adds toasty vanilla and soft cream flavors, especially in the "anejo" varieties that spend between six months and three years in the barrel. Longer-aged mezcal has been aptly compared to good single-malt Scotch.

No matter how it's prepared, high-end mezcal is in very limited supply, some produced in lots as small as a couple hundred bottles, so your corner liquor store probably won't have any sitting next to the Cuervo. And, at prices often surpassing $100, it would be sacrilege to let these south-of-the-border masterpieces anywhere near a slice of lime or a saltshaker.

There is an upside to investing in a bottle — it's unlikely that anyone you know will have ever tried great mezcal, and they won't have an easy time finding it after you pour them a snifter of heady Oaxacan nectar at your next cocktail party. Take that, wine snob and Scotch geek!

Some producers of great mezcal (with mail-order options):

• Del Maguey:

• Scorpion:

• Don Amado:

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