Bugging Out

Is the Secret to Campari Red an Insect?

We search for the ancient red dye that has been used by spirits makers for decades.

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I’m with Manuel Loera, the manager of a Tlapanochestli, a small ranch at the edge of a dusty village six miles outside Oaxaca, Mexico. Loera wears neither hat nor spurs. He is soft-spoken and professorial and has a neat salt-and-pepper beard and rimless glasses. We are strolling through his livestock when he suddenly stops to wrangle one of his charges, scooping it up and quickly dispatching it by smearing it across the back of his hand. It leaves a bright crimson stain—the color of blood, but brighter and somehow more technicolorful.

This is Campari red, the color I’ve come searching for.

This red is the exact shade of Campari, one of the world’s most recognizable aperitifs, an Italian bitter spirit first produced in Milan in 1860. I’d argue it’s one of the most regal and alluring of shades of red ever put in a bottle. Sitting on a shelf, a bottle of Campari is basically a hummingbird feeder for humans, visible from a distance and serving as a powerful attractant. When entering a new bar, I always scan for Campari’s welcoming beacon. The mere sight makes me feel both welcome and thirsty. Some are said to be obsessed with Ferrari red. I’ll take crystalline Campari red any day.

For decades, Campari’s crimson hue was derived from Dactylopius coccus, a parasitic insect commonly called the cochineal. It’s technically classified as a scale insect, and it shares a distant ancestry with beetles. It’s tiny—about a third the size of a ladybug—and is dull grey. Even as insects go, it has a substantial charisma deficit. It has pretty much just one mission in its dull, short, solitary life: to attack and eat Opuntia cactus, also known as nopales in Mexico and prickly pear in the United States. This provides it the sustenance to reproduce and perpetuate the cycle anew.

For drinkers, the female cochineal is the more significant of the two genders. Shortly after birth, both genders muckle on to a cactus, sticking their proboscises into the flesh, and begin to extract nourishment. But the male—perhaps not surprisingly—doesn’t stick around very long, and soon sprouts wings to fly off in search of sex. “When the males come out of the cocoon, it’s time to party,” explains Loera.

Because the female cochineal remains essentially stationery, it attracts a host of predators. So females evolved to naturally produce more of a defensive chemical weapon that ants and other enemies find disagreeable. It’s called carminic acid, or carmine, and by happy circumstance it’s a vivid and non-fading red.

Loera has owned his spread for 25 years. He’s not only a rancher, but also a farmer, as he first must grow nopal cactus, which he does in small field out back. “The quality of my nopal is very important,” Loera says, since better nopal produces better cochineal. He harvests the nopal pads when they’re at their most succulent, lining them in rows on a waist-high table in a screened-in enclosure.

That’s when the ranching starts. To the top of each nopal pad he attaches a four-inch tube of woven grass about the width of a finger. Within these Loera has placed a fertile female cochineal, poised to reproduce. After hatching, their offspring burrow their way out of the tube, then make their way down the cactus, finding a spot to stake their claim and start extracting flesh.

After about two months, the feckless males fly off in search of whatever, and Loera gets to work, harvesting the remaining carmine-rich females. He rounds them up with a small brush, with each nopal leaf yielding about five grams of insects. About 20 percent of the harvest goes into the tubes to reproduce and start the process again. The remaining 80 percent are dried and sold.

For something so tiny and with such an uninspiring life story the cochineal has had a remarkable influence on global history. It’s native to the new world, and those who research such things have found evidence of cochineal dye dating back 2,000 years in Peru; many suspect the process of making this red dye started with the Incas and spread to Aztecs and other indigenous peoples, who learned how to domesticate the wild insects and thereby exploit the cactus-suckers. In time, the area around Oaxaca emerged as the preeminent center of cochineal cultivation.

The availability of cochineal was of tremendous interest to Europeans, who admired the red textiles they found when they arrived with conquest in mind. Cochineal didn’t offer the immediate gratification of plundering gold and silver, but it was valuable nonetheless. In the 16th and 17th centuries, royalty and court followers clamored for fabric of vibrant, non-fading crimson color, which had long been one of the more elusive hues to capture in cloth. So the Spanish demanded that indigenous people continue to cultivate cochineal, then collected it for export to Europe. Massive amounts traveled east, and galleons laden with cochineal became popular targets for privateers. The British captured 30,000 pounds of the dyestuff in 1589; 50,000 pounds in 1592; and 55,000 pounds in 1597. (If you think this history would make a good book, you’re right. Amy Butler Greenfield’s 2005 account, A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire, proves that a very small bug can yield a very big story.)

The use of cochineal in dying fabric was its primary use for centuries, but it was soon dragooned for use in cosmetics and food—in recent years it has provided color in Dannon Boysenberry yogurt and Tropicana Ruby Red Grapefruit Juice, among many other products.

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And somewhere along the line, cochineal made the leap into bitters, including Aperol and Campari. Why so many bitter apertivos were bright red makes for good conjecture—perhaps the color of alarm seemed best suited to bitter, a taste that warns humans of potential poison. But nobody seems to know for sure.

What is known is that Campari was colored with insects right up until it wasn’t. About a decade ago the liquor maker quietly made the switch, at least on bottles sold in America—the phrase “contains carmine” was dropped, and the phrase “artificially colored” was added. (According to a report last year in spirits-and-cocktails blog Alcademics, carmine is still found in Campari sold in Sweden and Mexico, although that may be due to older liquor in a long pipeline.)

Campari has managed a pretty good simulacrum of the original color with artificial dye. I turned up an older bottle containing carmine in Canada a few years ago, and compared it side by side with a newer bottle. The new color had a slight orange tint, which seemed to weaken the beacon. The tastes were subtly different as well, although I liked both and favored neither. I apologize for lacking the vocabulary to explain the differences.

Why Campari dropped cochineal is the subject of frequent debate among a certain class of spirits nerd. Some claim it vanished owing to an allergic reaction among a small group of drinkers, with the producer seeking to reduce liability. Others thought that they didn’t want to alienate the lucrative vegan market. For its part, Groupo Campari’s Milan office told me that the matter was uncomplicated: “Due to unpredictable fluctuations in both supply and quality, the company chose to no longer use carmine as it embarked on becoming a global brand.” The statement went on to note that the “colorings remain proprietary information.”

All is not lost for those who still desire a side of insect with their cocktail. Cochineal is used today in Bruto Americano, a fine bitter aperitif made by St. George Spirits in California. It’s also employed by the Leopold Brothers in Denver, who use cochineal to color its Aperitivo liqueur. “Yes, we still use it, and so far as I’m aware, we were the first U.S. distiller to use it,” says co-founder Todd Leopold. A common alternative for this hue is to use red dye #40. This is a certified color that is produced from petroleum distillates or coal tars. “For us, it was an easy question, as we produce food,” Leopold added. “That is to say, we don’t serve our customers chemicals.”

Leopold gets his cochineal from Peru—the largest exporter of cochineal today, producing about 1,200 tons a year. Oaxaca, once the global center of production, has been relegated to the margins. Loera offers dyeing workshops for weavers and other serious hobbyists. He does not sell his cochineal to any liquor producers, although one bar in Oaxaca buys it to make its own colored mezcal.

I bought a dime bag of it, of course—50 grams for about $3.75. I experiment with it in my kitchen, mixing up the dried and dead beetles with water or alcohol, then running it through a paper coffee filter to get the little bodies out of the way, and using it to make my drinks more festive.

Yes, you might find drinking an acid produced by uncharismatic parasite a little gross. That’s fine. You’re welcome to keep drinking your petroleum byproducts.