For some, it’s a reward. For others, it’s a punishment.
The “tequila worm” divides alcohol connoisseurs as the wiggly little prize at the bottom of a bottle.
What started as a marketing trend for mezcal, an alcohol made from agave but different from tequila, has grown to be a global phenomenon. Friends would pass around the bottle, getting drunker and drunker, and whoever got the last sip of mezcal also had to bite into the “worm” floating at the bottom.
It’s become prominent in pop culture, too. In “Poltergeist II: The Other Side,” the father of the family becomes possessed by a demon after swallowing a mezcal “worm” in the last sip of a bottle of tequila. The “worm” later leaves the father’s body, becoming a giant, tentaclelike monster.
But in a new study, published in the scientific journal Zoological Science on March 8, scientists confirmed that not only is the “worm” not found in tequila, it’s actually not a worm at all.
“Mexican entrepreneur Jacobo Lozano Paez is thought to have been the first ‘maestro mezcalero’ or ‘mezcal master’ to place larvae in bottles as a marketing strategy, to enhance the flavor and color of the drink,” the study authors said.
“Notably, none of these mezcal brands are tequila, as authentic tequila never includes a worm,” they continued.
The wiggly specimen was identified as an agave redworm moth larvae using DNA testing from the “worms” found in mezcal bottles from 2018 to 2022.
The researchers bought bottles of mezcal that contained the larvae from distributors across North America and from distilleries in Oaxaca, Mexico. The larvae were removed from the bottles and placed in a mason jar where they could be photographed and their DNA could be extracted.
The researchers said alcohol can degrade DNA over time, so of the 21 worms collected, only 18 could be used.
The DNA was compared to 63 different species of insects that the researchers had on their short list, taken from species of worms that have been known to be consumed in Mexico. Many species have similar larval stages, and many look like the larvae floating in the alcohol.
The results showed that all 18 larvae were from the same species, Comadia redtenbacheri, or the agave redworm moth.
“Adding larvae to Mexican beverages and foods (salts, garnishes, powders, etc.) is driven by health benefits and by beliefs that these larvae contain aphrodisiac properties,” according to the study.
But the demand for the little grubs has put pressure on their native populations.
“Unfortunately, wild-caught larvae are becoming less common, and gatherers are having to travel further to find them,” the study said.
Scientists said that some researchers are trying to find a way to grow the larvae in captivity, which can be done more effectively for the mezcal industry now that the exact species has been identified.