Culinary research organisation, the Nordic Food Lab has worked with a British distillery to create a gin using red wood ants, an insect with a subtle, citrus-like flavour.
The Western world is slowing learning not to be so grossed out about eating insects. While the majority of the population has been munching bugs without flinching for decades, the rest of us are tentatively grinding crickets into muffins, adding mealworms to caramel popcorn or just going HAM and frying tarantulas in tempura batter. Even vegetarians are coming round to the idea of getting protein from grasshoppers.
Because, like much of the stuff we should be eating more of, there is evidence insects could benefit both the environment and local economies, as well as delivering almost unrivalled nutritional value (insects provide more nutrients than beef or fish, gram for gram.)
While the list of reasons to eat creepy crawlies is long, it's one that usually stops at "flavour."
That is until a British distillery unveiled their latest batch of gin, a new blend with one secret ingredient: red wood ants.
"It's subtle. Almost citrus-like. It works well with herby notes and the flavour of the required juniper," explains Nordic Food Lab's Jonas Astrup Pedersen, who worked with The Cambridge Distillery to develop Anty Gin. "Amazing how such a small creature contains so much flavour."
Red wood ants live in large colonies, usually in forests in the Northern Hemisphere. To protect these communities, the insects' abdomens produce formic acid to spray in the direction of invaders.
As well as being a defense mechanism, this acid is a reactive compound in alcohol. It serves as "an agent for producing various aromatic esters," meaning that it creates an array of smells and flavours.
Each 70 centre litre bottle of Anty Gin contains the essence of 62 red wood ants harvested by wild plant specialists in Kent forests. After being transported to the distillery in Cambridge, the ants were immersed in ethanol before being distilled into a concentrate. This was then mixed with more traditional gin ingredients, including juniper, nettle, and alexanders seed.
The flavour of the ants is subtle. Almost citrus-like. It works well with herby notes and the flavour of the required juniper. Amazing how such a small creature contains so much flavour.
Nordic Food Lab, a culinary research organisation based in Denmark, approached The Cambridge Distillery to explore ways of achieving gin's signature citrus flavour without the use of lemon or lime. Run by distiller Will Lowe, the company specialises in "gin tailoring," producing bespoke blends for restaurants.
"Cambridge Distillery is a small batch, tailor made gin distillery," says Pedersen. "Their focus is entirely on quality and they're crazy enough to distill ants with us. We think that seems like a good match."
Anty Gin shows a rise in the culinary trend of utilising insects' specific flavours, rather than pinching our noses and swallowing them because we know they're good for us. (And at £200 a bottle, you'd hope it tastes at least a little more palatable than Aldi's ten quid version mixed with flat lemonade.)
"We're about to produce a second batch of the Anty Gin," says Pedersen. "With regards to dishes, our insect project is still ongoing and of course, that includes experimenting with insects in cooking."
While some scientists have questioned exactly how eco-friendly insect farming is, the Nordic Food Lab aren't the only ones experimenting with bug flavour profiles. Last week, an Edinburgh university student invented an insect cookery "starter kit" including a grinder for creating flour and specially designed storage containers, while the highlight of Elena Reygadas' recent guest dinner at London's Lyle's was the cockroaches. Positioned on edible flowers, they looked anything but unappetising.
While it'll probably be a long time before we see ants nests as something to enjoy over ice, at least we know that insects can go great with a slice of lemon and some tonic—after a serious ethanol dousing, of course.