Illustration by Eric DeFreitas
Last fall, I debuted a special cocktail at Columbia Room, the bar I own in Washington, D.C., that included black ants. It was inspired by chefs like Noma’s Rene Redzepi, who incorporate black ants in their food for their tangy, citrusy characteristics. The drink at Columbia Room was served with or without alcohol, and both versions cost $18.
Dare I say, without having done any scientific research on the topic, that most people don’t want bugs in their cocktails? But, if they do want bugs in their cocktails, then said bug would ideally be from a preferred bug vendor, not a fly trap. Therefore, when I set out to make a cocktail with black ants, I found a quality source and had to pay accordingly. The cost for a pound of ants nearly rivaled truffles.
I’m not here to sell you on ants in cocktails. I bring them up for a very simple reason: Good ingredients can be expensive. If you’re buying a quality non-alcoholic cocktail, without or without ants, it should utilize everything within the mixologist’s arsenal: carefully sourced ingredients, top-notch techniques and thoughtful delivery. At this level, you’re not just paying for the alcohol—that could be delivered in a shot, without all the fuss. You’re paying for the entire package. The bar sources and purchases specialty ingredients, and the bartender has the expertise to work with said ingredients and produce an entire show around your cocktail.
In his 1972 book One Drink, the English novelist Kingsley Amis wrote that “serving good drinks, like producing anything worthwhile, from a poem to a motorcar, is troublesome and expensive.” While he likely was not referring to non-alcoholic drinks, the same logic applies. Cocktails are culinary creations and not just a way to administer alcohol while masking its taste. The alcohol in traditional spirits works in tandem with other cocktail components like sweetness and acidity to create balanced flavor profiles.