Bartender, There’s a Grasshopper in My Drink: Chapulines in Cocktails

Bartender pouring a drink into a martini glass from a shaker
Carlos "Charlie" Cortez, a bartender at Casa Oaxaca, muddles grasshoppers with yerba santa leaf and lime juice, to which he adds pineapple juice, mezcal, sweet vermouth and simple syrup. Photo: Paul Bosky.

Given the prevalence of grasshoppers in Oaxacan cuisine as a crunchy garnish on top of guacamole or as a bar snack to nibble on while you drink your beer or mezcal, perhaps it was only a matter of time before they made their way into the glass. While sal de gusano (salt mixed with dried worms) and sal de chapulin (salt mixed with dried grasshoppers) have been used to rim cocktail glasses for years now, a handful of bartenders are now incorporating grasshoppers, or chapulines as they are known in Mexico, directly into cocktails.

According to Susana Trilling, an American-born chef who has lived in Oaxaca for 28 years, chapulines are “a pre-Hispanic food, they’ve been around for a very long time.” Trilling runs the popular “Seasons of My Heart” cooking school in Oaxaca, and has her own product line as well. There are numerous reasons for their appeal, she says. “People can gather them themselves, and they’re a simple, really great form of protein,” she said.

While chapulines’ flavor profile is mostly that of the lime, garlic and salt that they’re toasted with, they do have a flavor of their own — especially the bigger ones, Trilling said. They can have the subtle taste of corn or alfalfa, as that’s what they feed off of, but perhaps most importantly, they add a satisfying crunch.

According to Michael Iglesias, co-owner and head of the cocktail program at Oakland’s Calavera, he was inspired by his friend Carlos Cortez (a bartender at Casa Oaxaca in Oaxaca City) to offer a grasshopper cocktail for a special Day of the Dead menu he put together this past fall. While visiting Oaxaca, the two became fast friends, and one day they were mixing drinks together. Cortez challenged himself to make a drink with whatever was closest at hand to him: at that moment, it was a Mexican bar snack consisting of peanuts toasted with chile arbol and garlic, and grasshoppers. He muddled them with pineapple juice and mezcal.

The overview of a glass with a gold dusted ice cube and a grasshopper on top. The Charlie and the Golden Ticket cocktail features a whole grasshopper atop a gold luster-topped, hand-cut ice cube, and grasshopper salt adorning one side of the rim. Photo by Alix Wall.

“This is crazy delicious and weird,” was Iglesias’ reaction. So, when he got home, he worked to eliminate the “weird” part. He transformed the peanuts into a syrup and swapped out the arbol chile for chiles in adobo, leaving the pineapple juice and mezcal intact. “It tasted like some crazy pineapple-y grasshopper peanut butter,” said Iglesias, who then lightened it up by adding egg whites and lime juice. He garnished it with a whole grasshopper atop a gold luster-topped, hand-cut ice cube, and grasshopper salt adorns one side of the rim.

Called “Charlie and the Golden Ticket,” the drink, of course, references Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as well as Carlos’ nickname (he sometimes goes by Charlie) as an homage to the bartender who inspired it. Both Cortez and Iglesias believe Cortez was the first to use grasshoppers as a cocktail ingredient, and while that first one that inspired Iglesias seemed to have made its mark, Cortez has since improved on his original version by muddling the deeply herbaceous yerba santa leaf with lime juice and a few grasshoppers, and adding pineapple juice, mezcal, sweet vermouth and simple syrup.

A bartender pours drinks into rocks glasses garnished with crushed grasshoppers.Given the prevalence of grasshoppers in Oaxacan cuisine, it was only a matter of time before they made their way into the glass. Bartender Bobby Baker uses the grasshoppers as a garnish in a Oaxaca mezcal bar called Mezcalogia. Photo by Paul Bosky.

Bobby Baker, who moved recently from San Francisco to start a cocktail program at a cozy Oaxaca mezcal bar called Mezcalogia, has been using the grasshoppers liberally as a garnish. With some cocktails, he puts three of them on a skewer, and with others, he floats three on top. For a cocktail he’s been experimenting with that combines milk punch and mezcal, Baker rims the glass with sal de gusano (worm salt) and adds the grasshoppers mostly for the savory note that they add, given that the milk punch is slightly sweet.

For those tourists who might initially be spooked by eating bugs, Baker has some words of comfort. “They get better when you soak them in booze.”

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