What’s your favorite cocktail? Or perhaps more importantly, at least for Amy Stewart author of The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the World’s Great Drinks, what’s in your favorite cocktail? And Stewart doesn’t simply mean vodka, rum, or gin. She’s talking about things like honey, saffron, nutmeg, juniper, jalapeño, or sorghum. Stewart is quick to point out “Around the world, it seems, there is not a tree or shrub or delicate wildflower that has not been harvested, brewed, and bottled”. From the agave that makes our tequila to the lime we use to garnish said tequila, Stewart’s beautifully styled and written book provides history, facts, and (perhaps most importantly) recipes for all things potent and potable.
Stewart divides The Drunken Botanist into three parts, and even the section subtitles are worthy of note. In part one, “we explore the twin alchemical processes of fermentation and distillation, from which wine, beer, and spirits issue forth”; in section two “we then suffuse our creations with a wondrous assortment of nature’s bounty”, and in part three “at last we venture into the garden where we encounter a seasonal array of botanical mixers and garnishes to be introduced to the cocktail in its final stage of preparation”.
Or, to state more simply, Stewart moves (in alphabetical/encyclopedic fashion) through “the classics”, the plants most often used to make alcohol—such as apples, grapes, and barley to plants less familiar but still potentially potent—like marula, monkey puzzle, and tamarind. From there, it is on to botanicals (herbs, spices, flowers, nuts, etc.) that may not be alcoholic but add flavor and character to our beverages.
For each, Stewart provides the scientific name and history—sometimes even politics seep in. Stewart tells the story of Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov, who merely wished to “preserve the wild ancestors of the apple tree”. Sounds innocent enough, but evidently his genetic theories didn’t align with Stalin’s and Vavilov ended up in prison. Still, Stewart keeps the mood light (as it should be when discussing cocktails), stating: “Vavilov was arrested for his beliefs in 1940. He spent his last days delivering lectures on genetics to the other prisoners, many of whom surely wished Stalin would have arrested some locksmiths or dynamite experts instead of botanists”.
Other interesting trivia from the book— the largest fruit used to make an alcoholic beverage (in this case wine): most likely the jackfruit at three feet in length. The world’s most “imbibed” plant: sorghum. The vine that was once (mistakenly) thought to help cure syphilis: sarsaparilla.
Clearly, Stewart is a stickler for detail, both in her writing and in her cocktails. She describes hunting for “proper tonic water, made with actual cinchona bark and real Saccharum officnarum, not that artificial junk” and explains the differences between whisky and whiskey. She lets us know that wormwood, an essential component of absinthe, needs full sun but not much water and explains why we should grow wormwood in the first place: “Anyone who finds absinthe intriguing should try growing a little wormwood—not to drink, as making any sort of decent absinthe requires a still—but simply because it’s a beautiful and interesting plant”.
It’s equally clear that Stewart is passionate about her subject. The section on yeast is subtitled “A Love Story”. The section on barley begins “Imagine a world without beer, whiskey, vodka or gin. Impossible! Yet it is no exaggeration to say that without barley, they wouldn’t exist…” and asks us to understand “the near-miraculous powers of barley”.
Still, with all the trivia and history, the book has a practical element, as well. The section “About the Recipes” talks about serving size, glass selection, and ice: “Do not be timid about adding ice or a splash of water to a drink. It does not water down the drink; it improves it. Water actually loosens the hold that alcohol has on aromatic molecules, which heightens rather than dilutes the flavor.”
And of course, there are the recipes themselves. While some might be difficult to craft—unless crème de violette or St-Germain elderflower cordial are staples in one’s liquor cabinet—many such as the Moscow Mule (lime, vodka, simple syrup, and ginger beer) or the Cider Cup (hard cider, fruit, and ginger ale) should be reasonably simple to concoct.
Not even the sections dedicated to Bugs in Booze can diminish The Drunken Botanist’s style, charm, and wit. In fact the only thing that might be more fun than reading the book would be sharing one of its tasty cocktails with the author.