Hey, Bartender: What’s This Raw Chicken Doing in My Mezcal?

Three popular brands of pechuga mezcal

This coming Thursday is Cinco de Mayo, a date that commemorates Mexico’s victory over France at the Battle of Puebla. To many New Yorkers the holiday has become another excuse to raise a glass, though what fills that glass varies from celebrant to celebrant. For the longest time margaritas were the cocktail of choice, but during the last two decades an increasing numbers of drinkers turned to a shot of tequila or mezcal. The two, derived from the agave plant, are differentiated mainly by their methods of preparation and distillation and, hence, flavor, but the thing that sets them apart most in the minds of casual observers is the moth larva, or “worm,” found in the mezcal bottle.

The practice can be traced back to the 1950s, when one mezcal maker discovered a moth larva in a batch of his liquor and thought it improved the flavor. He started adding “worms” to all his bottles as a marketing strategy.

If you find the practice off-putting, you should know that a moth larva is not the most disturbing thing you can find in your glass. Pechuga mezcal, a traditional spirit of the Mexican state of Oaxaca, is made with raw chicken. The word pechuga is Spanish for “breast.” To wit, a piece of raw chicken breast is hung inside the vat during distillation. No, the end product doesn’t end up tasting like chicken soup, though some drinkers claim to detect a savory quality in the spirit.

If you’re worried about poisonous pathogens lurking in the raw chicken, know that the heat and steam released during distillation cook the poultry. It is the chicken’s fat and juices that dripping into the mezcal that lends it its singular flavor.

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