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Would You Drink this Ant-Infused Gin?

Image Credit: Cambridge Distillery

Looking for something unusual to put on your bar cart? Then check out Anty Gin, a collaboration between The Nordic Food Lab and the Cambridge Distillery ("the world's first Gin Tailor"), which is made from the essence of the red wood ant Formica rufa.

According to the booze's website, the ants “communicate using a host of chemical pheromones ... and they defend their complex communities by producing formic acid in their abdomens and spraying it in the direction of any invader ... Formic acid (the simplest organic carboxylic acid, with the chemical formula HCOOH) is a very reactive compound in alcohol, serving as an agent for producing various aromatic esters.”

Jonas Astrup Pedersen of the Nordic Food Lab explained via email that they’d “been working with insects ... for a period, and still do, trying to use deliciousness as argument for entomophagy,” the process of eating insects. “We came across these red wood ants and simply found the flavour astonishing.”

For those of us who don’t know what ant distillate tastes like, Pedersen compares the flavor to those of lemon and lime, and “a bit of lemongrass as well.” To balance the citrusy taste, the gin also contains “herby notes from wood avens, nettles, alexander seeds and of course, juniper.” The base alcohol is made with wheat.

To produce the first batch of 99 bottles, Forager, the appropriately named team in Kent, UK, found and preserved more than 6000 Formica rufa in alcohol. When the alcohol is distilled, the different parts of the liquid separate through evaporation and condensation. Each 700 milliliter bottle contains the essence of about 62 ants and comes with a 50 ml bottle of pure wood ant distillate.

If insects aren’t normally included in your personal food pyramid, the idea of ant gin may not strike your fancy. However, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported that “insects form part of the traditional diets of at least 2 billion people,” and “more than 1900 species have reportedly been used as food” [PDF]. And ants, along with bees and wasps, make up 14 percent of the “most commonly consumed insects.”

A bottle of Anty Gin costs £210, or about $321, plus shipping. Unfortunately, it’s not available in the United States, so you’ll have to try it the next time you travel to Europe.

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Big Questions
Why Do People Drink Mint Juleps at the Kentucky Derby?
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Whether you plan to enjoy the race from Churchill Downs or don an elaborate hat in the comfort of your own home, if you're watching the Kentucky Derby, you may find yourself sipping on a refreshing mint julep this weekend. But, why?

The drink—a cocktail traditionally composed of bourbon, sugar, water, and mint—has been a Kentucky favorite since long before Churchill Downs came into play. In fact, in 1816, silver julep cups were given as prizes at Kentucky county fairs (a change from the stuffed animals they offer today). And before that, a “julep” was considered medicinal, “prescribed” for stomach problems and sore throats.

Though mint juleps have likely been enjoyed at the Kentucky Derby since the beginning—legend has it that founder Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., planted mint for cocktails when he founded the track in 1875—the cocktail wasn’t declared the “official” Derby drink until 1938.

It was just a few years ago that the Derby switched to a more “authentic” version of the mint julep. For almost two decades, the 120,000 mint juleps served at the races were made with Early Times. Based on the aging process, Early Times isn’t considered bourbon (just “Kentucky whisky”) in the U.S. In 2015, they switched to Old Forester, which is also owned by the Brown-Forman Corporation.

Even with the switch to “real” bourbon, what most revelers actually get is the Old Forester Ready-to-Serve Cocktail mix, not a handcrafted mint julep—unless you’re willing to pony up $1000. For the past 13 years, Brown-Forman has served a special version of the drink made with Woodford Reserve small batch bourbon. It’ll set you back a grand, but hey, you get to keep the pewter cup—and proceeds benefit the Jennifer Lawrence Arts Fund (yes, that Jennifer Lawrence). In 2016, the Oscar-winning actress—and Louisville native—founded the organization "to assist and empower organizations that fulfill children's needs and drives art access to positively impact the lives of young people."

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
The Surprising Role Bats Play in Making Your Margarita
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The next time you have a margarita, raise your glass to the humble bat. Long-nosed bats are the main pollinators of agave, the plant used to make both tequila and mezcal. (Tequila is specifically made from blue agave, or Agave tequilana, while mezcal can be made from any species of the plant.) These agave plants open their flowers at night, attracting bats with their sugary nectar, and in turn, the bats help spread their pollen.

One of those bats, the lesser long-nosed bat, just got off the endangered species list in April 2018, as The Washington Post reported. It's the first bat species ever to recover its population enough to be taken off the Endangered Species List. Its revival is due, in part, to tequila producers along the bat's migration route between Mexico and the southwestern U.S. making their growing methods a little more bat-friendly.

While the relationship between bats and agave might be mutualistic, the one between bats and booze isn't necessarily so. Typical agave production for tequila and mezcal involves harvesting the plant right before it reaches sexual maturity—the flowering stage—because that's when its sugar content peaks, and because after the plant flowers, it dies. Instead of letting the plants reproduce naturally through pollination, farmers plant the clones that grow at the agave plant's base, known as hijuelos. That means fields of agave get razed before bats get the chance to feed off those plants. This method is bad for bats, but it's not great for agave, either; over time, it leads to inbred plants that have lower genetic diversity than their cross-pollinated cousins, ones that require more and more pesticides to keep them healthy.

Rodrigo Medellín, an ecologist who has been nicknamed the "Bat Man of Mexico," has been leading the crusade for bat-friendly tequila for decades, trying to convince tequila producers to let some of just 5 percent of their plants flower. The Tequila Interchange Project—a nonprofit organization made up of tequila producers, scientists, and tequila enthusiasts—led to the release of three bat-friendly agave liquors in the U.S. in 2016: two tequilas, Siembra Valles Ancestral and Tequila Ocho, and a mezcal, Don Mateo de la Sierra.

In 2017, when Medellín and his team visited the agave fields of Don Mateo de la Sierra to gather data, they discovered that the project was even more bat-friendly than they thought. The Mexican long-nosed bat, another endangered species, was also taking its meals at the field's flowering plants.

This weekend, raise a glass of tequila to all the bats out there—just make sure it's a bat-friendly brand.

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