Book review: Raise a glass to 'The Drunken Botanist' for dissecting our drinks
April 10, 2013 4:00 AM
Author Amy Stewart culls more than 150 plants to explore their role in cocktails.
By Hal B. Klein
We're acculturated to the farm-to-table movement, so much so that, "Did you know the chicken's name?" has become a common meme of pop culture comedy. But while farmers are now rock stars and industrious home cooks are busy preparing for a springtime forage of ramps, nettles and wild mushrooms, the art of cocktail making remains mostly mysterious. It's part alchemy, part chemistry and filled with the lore of a medicine man huckster.
"THE DRUNKEN BOTANIST"
By Amy Stewart Algonquin Books ($19.95).
"The history of drinking is riddled with legends, distortions, half-truths and outright lies," Amy Stewart cautions in her introduction to her new book, "The Drunken Botanist." Ms. Stewart builds credibility by sorting through these legends and half-truths with the rigor of an ivory tower scholar. "It's easy to pick up another person's book and read, but I went back to primary sources to an astonishing degree in my research. In doing that I found a lot of sloppy scholarship in people's work," she wrote. (A complete bibliography can be found online at drunkenbotanist.com.)
Ms. Stewart's geeky field guide to the botany of booze is part reference manual, part cocktail recipe book and part history lesson. The book is designed to entice the botanist and the boozehound -- those already steeped in the myth of drink will be immersed immediately in the detailed minutiae of nature's potential for intoxication. Ms. Stewart explores more than 150 plants in the book, many of them rather obscure.
Take the great yellow gentian, for example. It's a yellow, alpine flower that's native to the Alps and Pyrenees. Afficionados will revel in the knowledge that gentian's bitter roots are an essential component to the amaros and other digestivos that are the darling of the cocktail crowd. Herbalists will embrace the confirmation that specific compounds in gentian that have, thanks to recent studies, proved to aid in the production of saliva and digestive juices.
"Plant people love this kind of stuff," writes Ms. Stewart, herself an avid gardener and self-avowed plant geek. Her previous five nonfiction works all deal with the wild world we find in our backyards and beyond.
Lest this talk of primary sources and scholarly texts seem remarkably dull for a book about drinking, don't worry. "The Drunken Botanist" is not a Ph.D. dissertation turned into a publication. In fact, Ms. Stewart writes in an engaging, conversational tone that will attract even the casual reader. She has a remarkable ability to translate the historical, scholarly and botanical into a read as delightful as a pre-dinner Negroni.
That Negroni (an Italian classic that's enjoying resurgent popularity in bars and restaurants) appears at first glance like a rather uncomplicated creation: equal parts of gin, vermouth and Campari (a bitter Italian liqueur) are stirred over ice until cold, strained, and then garnished with an orange peel. But, according to Ms. Stewart, the contents inside the glass represent a global agricultural journey spanning millennia of innovation and exploration.
Peer deep into gin, and you'll find the product of wheat, barley, corn, rye or potatoes fermented by the frolicking festivities of domesticated yeasts. That gin was then distilled with the berry of an ancient cypress tree (juniper), the dried seed of a cilantro plant (coriander), a floral, perennial herb (lavender) and several other plants.
And that was just the start of the parade of nature found in this one tiny cocktail glass. Vermouth is wine (grapes) steeped with a panoply of flowers, roots, barks, sugar and spices. As for Campari, the exact ingredients in the bitter liqueur are known to a only a small handful of people: rhubarb, ginseng and a tart, golf-ball-sized citrus called chinotto are among the suspected ingredients; until 2006, the remarkable ruby color of Campari was derived from the dried and pulverized bodies of a small insect called a cochineal.
That's a lot of wildlife in one refreshing cocktail. Indeed, the great revelation in "The Drunken Botanist" is that at one point or another humans have tried to ferment or distill just about every fruit, vegetable or grain into something to imbibe -- even tree bark.
Without a defining narrative, "The Drunken Botanist" isn't a book you'll necessarily read through in a sitting or two (though it's certainly easy to be captivated by all the glorious detail). Rather, it's a resource you'll frequently grab to mix one of the more than 50 included cocktail recipes, plan a drinkable garden or simply use to impress your friends (or perhaps pub trivia team) with a few fun facts.
"The Drunken Botanist" is as engrossing as it is timely. Backyard and windowsill gardens are de rigueur, and craft cocktail culture is on the rise; it's no longer uncommon to see a bar lined with an array of fresh herbs, a variety of fruit and an assembly of tinctures and bitters extracted from the natural world.
According to Ms. Stewart, interest in how we imbibe the natural world has the potential to move us beyond a boozy bender with friends or a sun soaked morning working in the garden. "It's not just plants, it's how humans interact with plants. It's all of our stories," she writes.