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The Worm is Just for Flavor

November 2, 1987

OAXACA, Mexico (AP) _ Jose Lopez just laughs when told that Americans think a worm is at the bottom of a mezcal bottle because by the time you drink that much you’re too far gone to care what you eat.

″The worm gives it flavor,″ he said, interviewed in his small mezcal distillery in the town of Matatlan southeast of here. ″It has an aroma and a flavor that people like.″

Indeed, mezcal ″con gusano,″ or ″with the worm,″ is just one of many varieties of the potent alcholic beverage that can be found in its home state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico.

Yet for the export market producers have found that wormless mezcal has no appeal.

″If it doesn’t have the worm, it doesn’t sell,″ said Rodrigo Rodriguez, director of Gusano Rojo mezcal.

Rodriguez says his Gusano Rojo is the best seller in Mexico but second in the United States to the Oaxaca-produced Monte Alban, whose sales rose after a bottle was guzzled - worm and all - by bad guy Scott Glenn in the movie ″Urban Cowboy.″

In Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s most impoverished states, mezcal distilling still is very much a cottage industry. The state capital also is called Oaxaca.

Mezcal is made from the blue agave cactus, the same raw material used to make tequila, but the rawness of the business here stands in sharp contrast to the high-powered tequila industry based in Guadalajara, Mexico’s sophisticated, second-largest city.

No Chamber of Commerce for the mezcal industry exists. Such an industry group in Guadalajara long has promoted tequila, whose sales dwarf those of the rougher mezcal.

″They haven’t been able to export (mezcal) because of the mentality of Oaxacans,″ said Benjamin Fernandez Pichardo, publisher of El Imparcial newspaper here. ″They think small. There are only small producers.″

Many mezcal producers mutter that the better financed tequila distillers come to southern Mexico and buy up the raw material, although tradition states that anything called tequila must be made from blue agave grown in the west- central state of Jalisco.

Virtually all bottling of mezcal for export and the Mexican market outside of Oaxaca takes place in Mexico City.

″We’re better off being in Mexico City because of labor availability and the market,″ Rodriguez said at the Gusano Rojo plant in the capital. ″Transportation is easier, and the equipment that we need is supplied better here.″

He said sales last year were about 100,000 cases with 12 bottles each in Mexico with some 15,000 cases exported, mostly to the United States.

″Our volume isn’t very big,″ Rodriguez said. ″It’s a specialty drink that is just starting.″ Gusano Rojo first was exported in 1978.

″A belief exists that it is stronger than tequila, but really it is the same,″ he noted.

In the state of Oaxaca, mezcal has a certain mystique and even is thought to cure illnesses.

As one saying has it, ″With everything that’s bad, mezcal. And also with everything that’s good.″ It rhymes in Spanish.

″Mezcal is the first thing offered to a traveler,″ said Andres Henestrosa, a senator from Oaxaca for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. ″And the host takes pride in doing so.″

The export product generally is blended for a standard taste, but consumers in Oaxaca savor the differences of local producers. And virtually everyone claims to be able to taste the difference between mezcal and tequila blindfolded.

The elderly, genteel Henestrosa, who has written essays about mezcal, said the color and taste of the mezcal is judged carefully by connoisseurs. ″There are some people - sometimes even in the home - who produce quantities that are small but good,″ he said.

A purist would drink it only straight, after dipping his finger first into a tiny plate of ″sal de gusano,″ ″worm salt,″ in which ground worms are blended with salt and chile pepper.

The habit of biting into limes, according to Henestrosa, ″is against the law″ - a practice borrowed from tequila drinkers.

However, the floor of La Casa de Mezcal, or The Mezcal House, a rowdy cantina just across from Oaxaca’s main market, is littered with lime rinds.

Matatlan, a town of 6,000 people not far from the spectacular Mitla ruins that are one of Oaxaca’s prime tourist attractions, is known as a center of mezcal production.

Lopez’s Matateca Factory is one of the town’s largest with production of 3,000 liters each month. He estimates 150 distilleries are in business there.

″My father worked in this,″ he said. ″It goes from generation to generation.″

To start the production process, the cores of the cactus plant are cooked over red-hot rocks for three days in a covered pit. The pieces, broken up by a machete, then are put into a horse-drawn mill to be ground.

After a 24-hour fermentation, the distilling begins. There are two distilling periods of six hours each.

The state government has no firm idea of how many mezcal producers exist in Oaxaca. There are 170 producers, mostly small, registered with the state Department of Industrial and Commercial Development and producing a total 4.8 million liters annually. But officials concede that many remain off the books in rural Oaxaca to avoid paying taxes.

The average producer makes 1,000 liters each month, and most is consumed locally.

Some proposals are floating to register the name ″mezcal″ as a trademark of Oaxaca and place all production under quality control. There are reports here that contraband producers outside Oaxaca are selling chemically made mezcal that, in perhaps the worst offense of all, has a plastic worm at the bottom of the bottle.

End Adv Nov. 2

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