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.”