In all my sensory recollections of summer, the flavors are invariably Mexican—the smell of roasted tomatillos, the snap of fresh jicama, the ecstasy of a warm tortilla piled high with pibil.
This summer I’m adding a new favorite: mezcal with a hint of moth worm. Seriously.
“Purists will tell you the only way to drink mezcal is neat,” says Javy Rojas, bartender at Pajarito in St. Paul. “The destileros in Mexico will tell you the best way to do it is take a little sip to get your mouth used to the alcohol, then take a second bigger sip because by then you’ve numbed your taste buds and you can taste the spirit better. I like that method, but I also like it with orange and Tajín or sal de gusano, because it softens the mezcal and lets you taste some of the most subtle notes. It gives the mezcal more complexity.”
You might (or should!) be familiar with Tajín, the chili-lime spice blend that’s perfection on roasted sweet corn. But what’s this other stuff?
“For sal de gusano, they grab the worm from agave plant that they used to put in mezcal bottles,” Rojas explains. “It’s a moth worm. They dehydrate it and powder it and mix it with a chili-lime-sea salt blend very similar to Tajín. I think the worm gives it some umami on the back end, a little intangible extra flavor.”
If you’re drinking mezcal in Oaxaca—or at Pajarito with Rojas, as we tend to do—they might bring you some orange slices sprinkled with cinnamon, or salt, or perhaps sal de gusano to help accentuate the nuances of the mezcal. You sprinkle your seasoning on the orange wedge and eat it, coating your mouth in the citrus and spice, and only then sip the mezcal.
The magic of this method is the way that it helps neutralize mezcal’s most potent characteristic: the smoke. The agave hearts that make mezcal are smoked in large underground pits, which impart a flavor to the finished spirit not terribly unlike the way smoked malt affects to the taste of Scotch whisky. The spiced orange method allows the sweetness to mellow the smoke and the salt brings out mezcal’s floral and mineral notes.
You can order sal de gusano from online retailers or you can lick it from the rim of the Pajarito cocktail called Pineapple Express. Tajín is available everywhere and your spice cabinet is incomplete without it.
Rojas also lead us through his three mezcals of the moment. From something light and fruity to the deepest of smoke bombs, the spiced orange method helped reveal something new about each of them.
Gracias a Dios Espadín Blanco: “A great introduction, it’s not as smoky as a lot of mezcals,” says Rojas. It has a grassy sweetness and fruity esters, with an astringent mid-sip. The orange gives the whole thing a cheery lift. A mezcal for the rum drinker.
Derrumbes Oaxaca: “A little more minerally, dry, and tannic,” Rojas explains. “It’s not my favorite to drink neat, but it’s my favorite to pair with [the orange], because of the way it plays with your senses.” The spirit smoked with black oak, and the orange transforms the sweetness at the end. A mezcal for the rye whiskey drinker.
VIDA de San Luis del Rio: “They smoke their piñas a lot longer, it’s a smoke bomb,” says Rojas. “If you’re a Scotch drinker this is the mezcal for you.” It’s a wallop of musty smoke to start, but the spice on the orange is able to cut through and highlight its floral qualities.