In the spirits industry, the domino effect can sometimes produce wonderful results. Case in point: the agave boom. The country’s still-increasing interest in tequila, mezcal, and funky cousins like raicilla has also boosted the popularity of agave-based cocktails beyond usual suspects like the Margarita. This broader interest in agave cocktails has naturally given the salt rim its moment. This makes perfect sense. Legend has it that the first salt rims showed up on the first Margaritas, and the rim’s crunchy salinity plays so nicely with a tequila’s earthy essence or a mezcal’s smoky notes.
For some bartenders, the increased interest in salty accouterments gives them license to up their rim game, and some are doing this through worm salt. The name may be off-putting to some, but the character it can add to a cocktail can quickly make what it’s called — and what’s in it — an afterthought.
What is worm salt?
Worm salt does, indeed, contain worms: The insects are pulverized to varying degrees and blended with various salts and chiles. Once the mix dries out over a couple of weeks, it’s ready to be applied on the rim of a cocktail glass, sprinkled on a slice of citrus to accompany a tequila or mezcal shot, or used as a finishing salt on foods.
The worms used aren’t arbitrary, as agave plants are a vital part of their ecosystem. “The worms come out during the rainy season when they start feeding on the agave plants. Farmers will harvest them during this time,” explains Adrian Herrera, general manager of Ghost Donkey in Phoenix. “There are two colors of worms harvested — red and white — but as far as I know, there isn’t any flavor difference. What gets harvested may just be based on the agave’s region or the farmer’s preference.”
Knowing that worms are actually an ingredient in worm salt may be a little unsettling to some, especially in the United States where insects aren’t considered a common part of the national diet. “To be honest, ‘worm salt’ does sound weird,” Herrera admits. Insects, though, can be delicious, and the culinary traditions of numerous cultures around the world would agree. But before you declare them as too icky to consume, consider the lobster: Before the crustacean arrives on your plate all bright and buttery, it’s an ugly little critter with cockroach-like antennae that crawls around the ocean floor. It’s essentially a giant sea bug, and you pay top dollar for the pleasure of consuming it at a restaurant, presumably with a nice glass of Chardonnay or Gewürztraminer. Similarly, insects can, in fact, be delicious.
Some bartenders find that the freak-out factor can be minimized by calling worm salt by its proper name, sal de gusano. This term can serve a greater purpose than merely avoiding colloquialism. “Sal de gusano ties deeply to Mexican and Aztec culture,” says Delena Humble-Fischer, GM and beverage manager of Sin Muerte in Phoenix. “As a Mexican woman, the term is important to me because it provides a better educational opportunity to share our culture with our patrons.”
How is worm salt used?
Worm salt delivers a punchy, spicy element to a drink. The inherent umami quality from the worms can temper a drink’s sweet components while also adding depth. “The spices in a worm salt make it act like a deeper, more complex form of saline,” Herrera says. “This rounds out the flavor of a drink, kind of like how salt and pepper can round out the flavors of a dish.”
Applying worm salt to a cocktail, though, is more complex than slapping a random amount on the rim. While a little goes a long way due to its spicy salinity, a drink’s base spirit and modifiers can dictate just how much worm salt is needed so the drink’s balance doesn’t spin out of whack. There’s also the worm salt’s texture to consider, which isn’t necessarily uniform. “While it’s usually pulverized, some worm salts are chunkier,” Humble-Fischer says. “They have these little balls that burst and give out these pops of umami flavor. It’s like a punch to the palate — a real transformative experience.”
Worm salt’s flavor profile and geographic origin obviously make it a terrific complement to agave spirits. However, its usage isn’t strictly beholden to tequila and mezcal. “Worm salt works great with a gin or an aquavit,” Humble-Fischer says. “The salt and spice will balance the gin’s juniper or the aquavit’s rye and caraway notes. It will also add a smoky, savory quality that’s never usually associated with a [gin or aquavit] cocktail. It’s stunning to use for a Saturn or a Bee’s Knees.”
Regardless of how sal de gusano is used, it can provide the imbiber with a spark of curiosity that can compel them to explore the context surrounding the ingredient. This can lead to a greater appreciation for agave, one that goes beyond its status as the star of an increasingly popular spirit category. “Worm salt can be the difference between a normal cocktail and a cocktail with a story and a culture,” Herrera says. “It can start these wonderful conversations of how one small state in one small region of a large country can create something so intriguing. It can take the guest on an in-depth journey, all through a single drink.”