Bug juice booze: How this product design duo is making their name in the alcohol game

By Sabrina Sucato

Bug juice is a real thing.

Skeptical? So was I when I first tried Critter Bitters, the aromatic bitters made from crickets. I couldn’t get the idea of dirt, grass, and creepy crawlies out of my mind as I prepared to take my first sip. Of course I was just being ridiculous—the bitters do not resemble bugs in the slightest. The nutty, earthy taste is more akin to toasted walnuts or woodsmoke than anything that chirps.

That’s the point.

Critter Bitters aims to help people “get over the ‘ick’ factor associated with entomophagy, or eating insects,” according to co-founders Julia Plevin and Lucy Knops. The creative duo met while earning their MFAs in Product Design at The School of Visual Arts, and have since made a name for themselves in two tricky-to-navigate fields. Not only did they concoct a successful bug-based product, but they also carved a niche for themselves in the artisanal alcohol industry, an arena which remains largely male-dominated.

The key to Critter Bitters’ success lies in the combination of a unique concept, artful packaging, and, most importantly, the creation of a genuinely good product. “People are more likely to try something new when it’s in alcohol,” said Plevin. Although she and Knops recognize that the initial allure stems from the “try it once” mentality, the long-term appeal has to do with the handcrafted liquid inside the chic eyedropper bottles. The bitters carry notes of rosehips, peppercorn, and cinnamon, creating a flavor that is natural without veering into liquid grass territory. Bugs or not, Critter Bitters makes a unique addition to any bar cart.

It is a challenge to stand out in the ever-expanding sea of foodie concoctions and gimmicky products. Yet Knops and Plevin manage to sell something that is just as cool as it is delicious. On top of that, the company’s slogan—“drinking cocktails won’t save the world, but eating insects just might”—is more meaningful than ever. Crickets may seem gross, but the reality is that the chirpy critters are high in protein and readily available throughout the world, making them an ideal addition to diets lacking in animal or plant protein. Knops and Plevin first came up with the idea to “juice” bugs after the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) published its 2013 report on Edible Insects—Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security. In it, the FAO declared that there will not be enough food to feed the projected nine billion people on Earth by 2050.

That hard-to-swallow statistic is why Knops and Plevin designed a beverage to help the reality go down (both literally and figuratively) just a little bit easier.  Insect-eating has gained in popularity not just as a food trend but also as a hunger solution, thanks in large part to powerhouse start-ups like Exo, a protein bar company that plays on insects’ high protein content.

Although a few bottles of cricket alcohol will not singlehandedly cure the impending food shortage, Critter Bitters does help to highlight a serious global issue. The fact that the pair of creators are raising awareness about this crisis through a chic cocktail ingredient, all while hollowing out a niche for themselves in the world of craft alcohols is more than admirable. That Critter Bitters’ success is appealing on so many levels, from quality and aesthetic to global impact to industrial individuality, is heady stuff. The project is not just a narrative about women in the alcohol game or the latest food trend. Critter Bitters is a societal statement as much as it is a booze brand.

Photos: Chia Messina