This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in February 2015.
On a Wednesday night, a couple—a woman in a nice white dress, and a businessman—sit on bar stools eating a little bit of everything at Suzumebachi, a new bee-themed bar in downtown Fukuoka, Japan. They make their way through grilled river fish, house-cured jerky, a big, glazed, sesame-sprinkled chicken wings, and roasted pistachios. The spot has a yellow and brown colour scheme, its cooking area is shaped like a honeycomb, and, near the washroom, glows a completely intact, beach ball-sized hornet's nest.
The name, Suzumebachi, translates to "Asian giant hornet." But the actual showpiece sits just behind the bar, and chef Kenji Yoshitake, who opened the place with his brother, will heave it out if he senses the time is right. Or if he wants to mess with his customers.
Kenji presents the couple with a huge jug of deeply murky liquid, stirring it with a ladle as large dark lumps whirl around inside. Most of the strange shapes hover along a graveyard on the bottom; three float like balloons on a string near the top. "You know, the floating ones still have poison in them," jokes Amanda, an animator who's showing me around. The blobs are giant Japanese hornets.
Kenji pours a big spoonful of liquid into a small bowl and hands it to the women in white. She scowls a face that's two parts disgust and one part embarrassment, proportions equal to the horrified face she makes after slugging back the brew. My time would come after two Suntori highballs, to which Suzumebachi devotes an entire tap.
Kenji's brew uses awamori, a liquor similar to soju, that's made in Okinawa. The recipe calls for peppermint and ten secret herbs. And poisonous giant hornets.
Bee booze is apparently an old school tradition in Japan's western region of Kyushu. Gatherers enter the forest to collect the bugs from their underground nests—a task that's a bit easier at this time of year since the bees are hibernating— and drown them alive in shochu. In their panic, the hornets release venom from their stingers that mixes into the drink. The jar is then sealed and left to ferment for a few years, to allow the poison to dilute and become something that won't (immediately) send you to the hospital.
Kenji does a quicker ferment on his hornet liquor, and his stock of hornets is donated from a university professor in Ibaraki. He shows me the smaller jar of specimens: it's jammed up to the rim with oily-looking bugs that have a dramatically pungent smell. He asks if I want to take the plunge, and I, highballed up, decide to live a little.
He lugs the jug over and begins to stir. I try not to think about the stingers, poisons, or the liquid that—if I'm being generous—could be mistaken for raw sewage. I look into my glass of bug juice: it's a miracle there aren't more thoraxes and wing bits floating around in the stew. How pretty are the whitened stripes along the hornet husks, glowing through the darkness like shoelaces in a game of Laser Quest. I take the hit.
You might assume that this cocktail would have a sort of honey terroir, which is a comforting thought. In reality, it's ashy in flavour, almost like sipping on charcoal. There's no sting in my mouth, but the bee bits hurtle down my throat and drop into my stomach with a thud instead. I feel like I just swallowed a marble. I ask if anyone's ever taken a bite out of one of the hornets, and Amanda explains that one of her friends has, and compared the flavour and texture to "boozy shrimp."
Kenji holds up one of the hornets to prop its stinger out, and I can't help but think of a dentist's drill.
Ever a good sport, Kenji begins listing all the apparent benefits of drinking this stuff. There's vitamin C and arginine, an amino acid that boosts immunity and clears skin—or so he claims. Kenji leans in closer and chuckles, adding that the brew is an aphrodisiac; he suggests I hit up the red light district that's a few blocks away. Then again, he says the same thing about the yamaimo, a Japanese mountain potato, which his brother is preparing on the grill behind him.
Days later, I still haven't experienced many of the anticipated side effects from the booze except for a strange, woozy numbness that has taken over my right arm and a small area on my forehead. Maybe that was a placebo effect of having consumed the brine—not the killer bees? Then again, the three additional highballs I downed as a chaser didn't help me much, either.
Either way, I got quite a buzz.
You know what, never mind. I'm not making that joke.