Gut Instinct: No Worms Allowed

Written by Joshua M. Bernstein on . Posted in Opinion and Column, Posts.


The first time I drank mezcal almost doubled as the last. It was the summer of 1999, and I was on a foolhardy road trip to Mexico with my best bud, Andrew; pal Jesse; and exgirlfriend Lindsay. Her attendance, a last-gasp attempt to win back her fickle love, was enough to doom the jaunt. Then came the hurricane.

As we reached the border in eastern Texas’ Laredo, not far inland from the Gulf of Mexico, gale-force winds bent our car’s antenna in half. Rain shot down in diagonal bullets. "The border is closing in two hours," the immigration official declared. "The river is flooding. Hurry!" We sped across the border into Nuevo Laredo, finding the roads ankle-deep with agua and rising. If we ventured deeper into Mexico, we ran the risk of being stranded till the raging Río Grande receded.

"We need to turn around. Now," Andrew said, his voice urgent. In my reptilian brain, I knew he was right. But we’d driven more than 1,500 miles to reach the border. I needed a totem of the trip. "OK, OK—but first we need to buy booze," I said. We splashed into a liquor store, indiscriminately grabbing bottles of tequila and worm-filled mezcal. Afterward, we high-tailed it to the States and, by the grace of youthful fearlessness and dumb luck, made it to a Texas hotel to ride out the storm. We were safe. My half-cocked plan to woo Lindsay on a Mexican beach was destroyed.

"Come on, let’s drink," I commanded, eager to blunt the pain of foiled puppy love. We conceived a game in which each person took turns pouring someone a shot of their choosing. Soon, everyone was choking down 2-ounce bolts of cheap, smoky mezcal. After several rounds, the crappy liquor wreaked head-spinning havoc. Andrew and Jesse tossed their cookies. Lindsay and I grew liquor-angry, and we started an hours-long fight in which I let everything off my chest except for this sentence: "I still want to be together."

The next morn, my head pounded like a jackhammer symphony. I swore off drinking mezcal and inviting ex-girlfriends on road trips. Unlike so many red-eyed, morning-after promises, I kept my pledge. That is, until I recently found myself at Midtown’s La Biblioteca, the sultry basement lounge located below cavernous Latin-Asian restaurant Zengo. The candlelit "library" designed by AvroKO is decked out with ink-black walls, red velvet–covered chairs and an encyclopedic collection of more than 400 curated tequilas and mezcals. My trepidatious taste buds were waiting to meet Pierde Almas, one of the newest small-batch mezcals to hit New York.

Wait—I’m getting ahead of myself.

A brief mezcal lesson: Both tequila and mezcal are made from the spiky agave plant’s heart, called a piña (it recalls a pineapple). To transform the plant’s starches and carbohydrates into fermentable sugars, the piña is cooked. To concoct tequila, the piña is steam-cooked in an aboveground oven; for mezcal, the piñas spend up to a week roasting in wood-fired underground ovens, thus imparting smoky nuances that Scotch fans will favor. That worm floating in the bottle? It’s a gimmick, says Laura Gonzalez Fierro, an architect turned parttime mezcal importer.

"In Mexico, they don’t usually put worms in the mezcal bottle—the ones with worms are of lesser quality." Her boyfriend, Pep Patelas, adds, "You always hear so many stories about mezcal: that the worm makes you hallucinate, that you shoot it, then drink a beer. That’s not true. We sip mezcal."

In New York, Fierro couldn’t find the kind of mezcals she liked sipping. Whenever the Mexico native returned to Mexico City, she’d return bearing bottles of her favorite mezcals, in particular Oaxaca’s Pierde Almas—a generationsold, family-run artisanal distillery. Pierde Almas proved so popular with pals that they’d polish off a bottle in a night. Since it was hardly economical to fly to Mexico to restock, Fierro decided to take another route: import the mezcal. Last summer, she embarked on a Byzantine paperwork journey that ended in December, with the arrival of the Pierde Almas mezcals laid out before me.

I grab my glass of Do-ba-daán, which is made with a kind of agave that takes up to 12 years to ripen. Since the mezcal is joven (unaged, to let natural flavors sing and zing), it’s as clear as water. But its scent is a complex blend of salt and earth, minerals and fruit. On my tongue, the 100-proof spirit blooms with fruit and cloves, and a haunting, lingering smokiness.

Equally beguiling is the Tobalá, which is made with a wild agave. It packs a brighter, fresher bouquet, and goes down with a surprising floral sweetness that snuggles up nicely to the smoke. This was mezcal for pleasure, not punishment.

"What do you think?" Fierro asks. "I think I could get used to drinking mezcal," I reply, sighing. I sneak another smoky sip, eager to make up for lost time. 

Pick up a bottle of Pierde Almas at Astor Wines & Spirits, or try a toot at Hecho en Dumbo. What mezcals do you like? Tell me at jbernstein@nypress.com. Follow me on Twitter @JoshMBernstein.

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