Swill is our bi-monthly column dedicated to liquor, wine, beer, and every other delicious dram that falls under the broader umbrella of booze. But it’s more than just tasting notes scribbled on a cocktail napkin — Swill is about getting outside of your comfort zone, trying new things, and exploring the big, wide world of libations. One week you might catch us halfway through a bottle of single-malt scotch, and the week after that we might be buzzing on some Ugandan moonshine made from bananas. This column is just one big boozy adventure, so grab yourself a glass and join us for another round.
I’ve tried a lot of weird and wild booze in my life, but this past weekend I got a chance to sample one of the strangest and most intriguing spirits I’ve ever encountered. The bottle in question was a gin made by Cambridge Distillery, which features an ingredient that you don’t normally see in craft spirits: dead red wood ants.
Anty Gin sounds like a gimmick at first, but just hear me out. The husband-and-wife duo behind Cambridge Distillery are booze geeks of the highest order, and there’s some legitimate method behind their madness. Here’s a quick snippet from their website:
Formica rufa, the red wood ant, are found in forests around the Northern Hemisphere, and are inspiringly sophisticated creatures. They communicate using a host of chemical pheromones, which allow them to form immense colonies housed in large mounds, and they defend their complex communities by producing formic acid in their abdomens and spraying it in the direction of any invader. Luckily for us, these very compounds hold great delicious potential. 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. Furthermore, many of their chemical pheromones are the same volatile molecules, which we perceive as aroma. Through distillation of these wood ants, we can explore the tasty universe of these naturally occurring molecules and reactions, capturing the flavours of this fascinating species.
Basically, the distillery secured a batch of about 6,000 dead/preserved red wood ants, and used them to create a distillate, which it then added to a special gin made with botanicals that compliment its flavors. According to the description, each bottle of Anty Gin contains the essence of “approximately sixty-two wood ants” — along with a blend of wood avens, nettle, alexanders seed, and the obligatory juniper berry.
Cambridge Distillery supposedly distills this stuff in one-liter batches — so as you’d expect, it’s pretty expensive and hard to come by. Bottles currently go for about $315 each, and have to be shipped from abroad unless you live in the UK. The only reason I was able to sample a bottle was pure luck. A friend of mine happens to be an entomologist (a scientist that studies insects), with a rich British uncle, who sent her a bottle as a birthday gift. Luckily, she saved me a few sips because she knew I’m crazy about gin, and thought it might like to have a sample.
I was extremely excited to taste it, but to be quite honest, Anty Gin’s flavor didn’t blow my mind. It’s supremely clean and bright — and was clearly made by talented distillers — but the wood ant distillate isn’t as bold and different as I was hoping for. It’s much more subtle and understated than the bottle’s name and label lead you to believe. Juniper is still the star of the show, and there’s some earthy, herbaceous and slightly citrusy undertones that come through on the nose and finish.
To sum things up, I’ll say that this is an excellent experimental gin, and that I applaud Cambridge Distillery on their adventurousness — but for most people, Anty Gin probably isn’t worth the exorbitant price tag. If you should happen to encounter it by chance, however, you should jump at the opportunity to try a swig. There’s nothing else like this in the world!