Entomophagy is the human consumption of insects as food. Lucy Knops and Julia Plevin think that this should include getting shitfaced off insects, too.
Last November, they launched a Kickstarter campaign for their toasted-bug-distilled cocktail bitters, and it was more successful than they could ever imagine. The reason? Their little bottle of boozy flavoring may very well be the gateway drug for even the most squeamish of people to finally give eating bugs a shot. And according to a 2013 report published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) titled "Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security," bugs may be the key to future food security.
MUNCHIES caught up with Knops—a bartender with over ten years of shaking drinks around New York City under her belt—to find out how social justice plays into her bug-eyed booze project, and what exactly is in her Jitterbug cocktail.
MUNCHIES: Can you recall the exact "a-ha!" moment that made you realize that you wanted to make bitters out of crickets? Lucy Knops: I don't think there was an exact moment. The project came out of my time in grad school for product design. It was the year when the eating bugs report by the FAO came out and I was given a project on entomophagy during a sustainability class. I thought about what would be a good entry point to eating bugs for most people, and what better way than with cocktails?
From there, it took me a little while, but I started looking into the history of booze and realized that people have been putting almost anything under the sun into cocktail bitters, so why not crickets? I had been a bartender for ten years at that point and had tried experimenting with bugs in my drinks—everything from muddling crickets into cocktails and letting [them] sit in spirits for a while. As a bartender, I found bitters to be the best vehicle for the unique flavor of crickets.
What is this unique flavor like? Toasted crickets—on their own—have a nutty, earthy taste to them. As a tincture and in bitters, they maintain that kind of nuttiness and gain a sweetness from the alcohol pulling out the sugars. The result is an earthy, sweet flavor, almost like a dark honey. The bitters [are] made with gentian, burdock root, cinnamon, rosehips, and other herbs and spices that round out the cricket flavor and make it cocktail-friendly.
There's definitely a muskiness to the overall flavor, but not in a bad way. To me it's akin to the way some funky wine is described as having a "barnyard" element to it—which, as we all know, is a flavor that chefs, sommeliers, bartenders, and people all over the world regularly really love.
Can you walk me through the process of making it? It's pretty simple. We buy high-proof vodka and then we get all of our crickets from a company in Texas that raises crickets exclusively for human consumption, as opposed to crickets raised for your pet lizard. They come toasted already. We make an individual extract from all of our spices and mix them all up to make our signature flavor. Our bitters weigh in at around 95-percent alcohol.
Any idea around how many crickets are in each bottle? In a four-ounce bottle, there is less than half an ounce of pure cricket. The irony in this, however, is that there are probably more bugs in the chocolate or peanut butter that you eat.
What kind of cocktails would you add Critter Bitters too? It goes great with anything with mezcal—it has a real deep flavor it, unlike your traditional bitters that tend to go with brighter spirits like gin and other clear spirits. Critter Bitters goes good with bourbon, rum, and bolder spirits like that. I would definitely add it to a Manhattan, too. Also, it is great in punches.
Have you created any cocktails with it? The Jitterbug is a take on a classic Canadian punch. It's basically rye, dark rum, pineapple, lemon, and demerara sugar that you soak with the booze and the bitters for a day. We are putting together a little recipe book right now with more recipes. We're also messing around with some non-alcoholic applications, too, like with coffee or grapefruit juice, since bitters [were] traditionally used for health, you know?
How has the response been so far? I stopped bartending right when we launched this project to do it full time, so I haven't served it to any of my old customers. Bartenders and chefs love to play with it, though.
But you're interested in insect bitters for more than just mixology, right? For my co-founder and myself, the bigger mission is to be able to use this as a prop in a wider conversation about food scarcity and our food system in general. We are both using our background in design and products to get people to talk about eating bugs. This is just as important as talking about climate change or any other hugely important topic.
The thing about talking about any crisis in the world, unfortunately, is that because they are such complex topics, [they] can be very overwhelming for most people. It can be hard to find an entry point to talk about these things. Critter Bitters, as small as it may be, may serve as this entry point. When you are drinking it in a bar, said topic may come up in a random conversation. This larger mission is why we even decided to go forward with this and put it on the market.
Have you converted any anti-bug naysayers with it yet? Once you get people drinking, most people are like, "Of course I would try this. It's not weird at all." It's easy to get people to try anything if it is in a cocktail. It's one thing to look at an insect and eat it, but when it's in a boozy liquid, it is a whole lot easier to sway people. We've been doing a lot more insect-based food events since launching this, and we've had people who come in as skeptics. Then they are eating and drinking bugs at the end of the night like they would eat potato chips and any other cocktail.
Do you or your partner eat bugs regularly at all? I've certainly eaten a lot more bugs since I started this, but bugs are not part of my everyday diet. Though, I'm slowly becoming more open.
Any plans to create a bitters recipe with other bugs? Spiders? Worms? I'm not sure that our goal is to necessarily expand into other insects, just maybe more products that we can launch to get people talking about other large problems going in the world—bitters or not.
Thanks for speaking with us.