A sea salt rim on a margarita glass is a ubiquitous site in American bars, but in Mexico, a different kind of salt comes into play when drinking agave spirits, specifically sal de gusano, or worm salt. “The consumption of insects, mezcal and worm salt dates back to before the arrival of Europeans into Mexico,” says Merci Mercado founder Virydiana Velarde. “The worm salt is an indispensable ingredient in Southern Mexico’s cuisine, and for hundreds of years it has been a tradition to drink mezcal [accompanied] with worm salt and often with fruits like orange slices.”
Recipes vary by region and community, often passed down through generations of families, but most agave worm salts share certain ingredients: dried and crushed agave worms (sometimes grasshoppers, or chapulínes), salt, dried chile peppers and occasionally other ingredients like dried hibiscus leaves or citrus zest. “The wide range of flavors in the worm salt opens the palate and balances out the smoky flavor of mezcal and the citric punch of the orange juice. Both the mezcal and the worm salt are made from ingredients of the agave plant, so they just go great together,” Velarde adds.
Many modern worm salts can be found in bars that specialize in Mexican spirits, but you can also occasionally find them in liquor stores, specialty cocktail stores and online. Try one of these options with your next copita of mezcal.
Bitterman Salt Co.
From Portland, Oregon-based salt purveyor Bitterman Salt Co., this blend features crushed pasilla and arbol chiles in addition to gusanos and salt for an extra kick of spice. The super-fine texture is more like a powder, which works beautifully for dusting slices of orange or pineapple. $10, themeadow.com
Compania de Sales
This Mexico-based salt company makes herb-spiked salts in addition to their three Pre-hispanic ones: chapulín and jengibre (ginger), agave worm and hierba santa (yerba santa herb), and hormiga (chicatana ants) and cardamomo (cardamom). The unique flavor pairings help these salts stand out. The Hierba Santa tastes somewhat smoky and very savory, with big chunks of salt and dried herbs punctuating a soft dust of chile pepper. $10, tienda.companiadesales.com
Inspired by the culinary traditions of pre-Colombian Mexico and self-dubbed a “pre-hispanic snackeria” San Francisco-based Don Bugito specializes in edible insect snacks of all kinds. Their sal de gusano is made with worms sourced directly from farmers in the mountains in Northern Mexico. It’s a fine-grain worm salt with an extra fiery kick thanks to the inclusion of a ground chile powder. $6.50, donbugito.com
With a pleasing texture, Gran Mitla’s bulky salts come in several flavors: gusano, chapulín, jamaica (hibiscus) and habanero. For the bug-based versions, a proprietary blend of four dried chile peppers indigenous to Oaxaca add complexity to the mix but lack a significant chile pepper burn, making it a great option for those who prefer a more savory flavor profile. Price varies, granmitla.us
For the most adventurous, Merci Mercado offers whole dried grasshoppers and agave worms in addition to blended salts. The tiny, crispy snacks come in plan, chipotle-dusted and adobo-flavored versions. The agave worm salt has a medium grain size and a big burst of heat that lingers on the palate. That added heat makes the salt a great option for adding a little spice to the rim of a Margarita or Paloma. Price varies, merci-mercado.myshopify.com
Sal de Aquí
Made with salt sourced from the Cuyutlán Lagoon in Colima, Sal de Aquí offers a worm salt made with smoked chiles and a grasshopper salt—both ground by hand in a molcajete. (They also offer a basic unflavored sea salt and a citrus, prickly pear and chile salt for those averse to the gusano option). The coarse grind makes for a pleasing textural addition to a mezcal tasting. $14.99, amazon.com
Did you enjoy this article? Get more of the best of liquid culture when you sign up for a print or digital subscription to Imbibe Magazine. Click here for special savings!