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.”