When you pry a piece of corn silk out of your teeth, you’re yanking out a fallopian tube. Good sake should never, ever be served hot. And though you might shudder to hear it, some brewers in Brussels are quite happy when bugs fall into open vats of yeast, because they churn it up, thus becoming “unwitting accomplices in the dance between sugar and yeast.”
These are the sorts of intoxicating lessons you learn about plants, brews and bugs in Amy Stewart’s entertaining new book, The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks (Algonquin, $19.95), which deserves a place on the shelves of aspiring mixologists and liquor enthusiasts everywhere. Stewart celebrates the plants that flavor our favorite adult beverages, debunks long-held myths about booze and includes recipes and growing tips (example: cultivate wormwood because it’s beautiful, not because you should attempt to make absinthe, which requires a still).
“It was a mindboggling amount of research,” admits Stewart, who appears Friday at Books & Books in Coral Gables, where she plans to whip up an “unusual, interesting rum drink” that will become the store’s “signature” cocktail” (hint: it’s nothing so pedestrian as a mojito).
“I really kind of went too far in places. I spent six weeks working on the agave chapter, and I thought, ‘This book is going to take me 20 years, I can’t keep doing this.’ But I would get stuck on one weird little fact that seemed wrong, but to find out what really happened meant going back to primary sources, hiring researchers and translators. … I was hardcore about this.”
In one case, Stewart had to verify a hieroglyphic in the Ebers Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical text. (“I was truly insane,” she says by way of explanation.) But spending days establishing some truths about our founding fathers — Benjamin Franklin did not create a recipe for spruce beer, nor did George Washington distill apple jack, she says — was only part of her grueling research. She also had to sample a version of every drink recipe in the book — there are 50 — and tasted many of the other concoctions about which she writes.
Naturally, there are a few she won’t be ordering again any time soon.
“No disrespect to the Philippines, but I tried palm wine and rice wine, and they were awful,” she says.
The Drunken Botanist does not mark the first time Stewart, who owns the antiquarian bookstore Eureka Books in Northern California with her husband, has ventured into the natural world in search of compelling stories. She’s also the author of From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden; The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms; Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful; Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities, and Wicked Bugs: The Louse that Conquered Napoleon’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects.
“What’s so remarkable about Amy — and I think this is what sets her apart and makes her books so successful on every level — is that she is a tireless researcher, and then has the ability to step back from this massive pile of information, of facts, history, science, stories, lore, interviews, and pull out what’s really important and interesting,” says Algonquin editor Andra Miller. “Amy once told me that her books could easily be 1,000 pages long, and no doubt it’s true. But it’s her discernment that really makes her books work.”
But the plants aren’t what drive Stewart to seek material in the greenery.
“What’s interesting to me are the people,” she says. “Frankly a plant that’s just growing along in the jungle is not that interesting. It’s just there being green and doing what it does. But when a person comes along and goes, ‘I can commit murder with this plant!’ or ‘I can make a drink of this plant!’ things start to happen. The plants are the innocent bystanders in all of this. In Flower Confidential that was kind of the thing: Flowers are just flowers, and we come along and turn them into this global agriculture.”
Living just shy of the Oregon border, Stewart cultivates the plants best suited to that climate: black currant for cassis; sloes (blackthorn berries) for sloe gin fizzes; elderberry, not for the berries but the flowers, which perfume elderflower liqueur (“No other spirit tastes quite so much like a meadow in bloom,” she writes. “If one tries to imagine what honeybees taste when they dive between a flower’s petals, this drink is surely it.”). She’s jealous, though, of South Florida’s weather and potential for growing unusual plants, herbs and spices.
“This is where I long to be,” she says. “Tropical plants are so interesting.” Among her favorites: heirloom varieties of sugar cane, which come in such vibrant shades as purple or red and white stripes. “They’re dazzling. Last time I was in Miami I had a mojito that used sugar cane as a swizzle stick. Just remember that sugar concentrates in the lowest segment of the stalk.”
Stewart also is a fan of tropical fruits, and says if she lived here she’d experiment with cardamom, part of the ginger family. But while she enjoys new and fresh ingredients and says that bars have inspired some of her artwork (you can see her oil paintings at amystewart.com), she finds the trendy mixology going on at certain classy establishments a bit over the top.
“It’s gotten a little precious,” she says. “At a certain point it gets in the way of making a good drink. Funny thing is, I considered it my duty while working on this book to seek out places where I could have unusual drinks. I’m in Chicago, and I went to this bar called The Violet Hour, one of the most beautiful bars I’ve ever been in. But after so many strange drinks, now I go home and make a Manhattan or an Old-Fashioned. None of them [the fancy drinks] have become what I want after work.”
Still, overall, Stewart believes the trends are heading in the right direction.
“The best thing in the cocktail world is the move to real ingredients, not flavored vodkas or plant extracts done in a lab that have nothing to do with the fruit on the label,” she says. “We’re moving away from cheap cocktail syrups toward real ingredients. If you’re going to make a mojito? Squeeze that fresh lime into the shaker.”