The role that grapes or barley play in creating spirits may be a given, but what about plants such as corn, rice, sorghum or sugarcane? We may be onto a new drinking game here – one author Amy Stewart
would likely approve of. In The Drunken Botanist
(Algonquin Books, March 2013), she takes a fun and lighthearted look at the botanical world and the integral part it plays in what we imbibe.
Stewart has authored six books on the natural world, including Wicked Bugs
(Algonquin Books, 2011), and Wicked Plants
(Algonquin Books, 2009), the latter which contains a section called “The Devil’s Bartender” exploring poisonous plants that have been used over the centuries to make alcohol. Stewart says she could mix a “decent” drink before working on The Drunken Botanist, but honed the craft throwing the many parties involved in her research and writing process.
The inspiration for the book came in the form of the jalapeño-based Mamani Gin & Tonic (recipe below), which Stewart mixed in an effort to convince a fellow garden writer of the virtues of gin. A trip to a Portland liquor store for supplies opened her eyes to the many plants in the bottles lining the shelves: Zea mays in bourbon, Humulus lupulus in beer, and Solanum tuberosum in Polish vodka. Stewart writes in The Drunken Botanist, “Suddenly we weren’t in a liquor store anymore. We were in a fantastical greenhouse, the world’s most exotic botanical garden, the sort of strange and overgrown conservatory we only encounter in our dreams.”
When deciding on the more than 150 plants, flowers, fruits and trees included in the book, a global scope was important. “I think it’s easy for us to talk about North America and Europe when we talk about spirits and drinks but there are all of these global drinking traditions that most of us don’t think that much about,” Stewart says in an interview. “When you look at Africa and India, and of course Asia, and South America, you realize that there’s hardly a plant anywhere that people have not figured out how to turn into alcohol,” she adds with a laugh.
Stewart offers the example of the “unglamorous” sorghum grain, one of her favourite plants in the book, which is widely used throughout Africa to homebrew beer and in China to make baijiu – a distilled alcoholic beverage. Its use is so widespread in these regions that Stewart estimates sorghum rivals grapes or barley as “one of the world’s most-imbibed plants.” The drought-tolerant grain is also grown extensively in the American South, where farmers have long known it makes a fine moonshine.
As for the taste, Stewart explains that if you’ve eaten Ethiopian food, you may have had sorghum; the Ethiopian flatbread injera is often made from either sorghum or teff flour. “I’ve had sorghum beer and it’s good. And the Chinese spirit is an adventure,” she says with a laugh. “It’s not for everybody and like anything, there’s a high-end and a low-end, and I’ve had the high-end and it’s pretty amazing actually.”
Knowing more about what goes into the glass – the origins, history, stories and traditions – can lead to better-made drinks. The reason being, Stewart explains, is if you know what ingredients are in something, you will likely have a better idea of what to pair or mix it with. For example, if you know that a liqueur is made with grapes, then you might mix it with a brandy, which is also made from grapes rather than a whiskey, which is made from grains. “There are certain ways that you can pair compatible ingredients if you just know what those ingredients are, but for me, the benefit is really just being able to sit around a bar with your friends and go, ‘You know, Christopher Columbus brought this plant to the New World. It didn’t even exist…’” she says. “That kind of stuff just fascinates me. So for me, it’s having a richer understanding of what you’re putting in the glass.”
The Drunken Botanist includes 50 drink recipes, as well as 13 recipes for syrups, infusions and garnishes such as refrigerator pickles and maraschino cherries. The drink recipes are intended to be simple and classic, with an emphasis on variations that best highlight the particular plant’s use in liquor, “The recipes are really nothing fancy. The subtitle is, ‘The plants that create the world’s great drinks’ and by the world’s great drinks, I really mean the drinks that we all know and anybody can make or could learn how to make,” Stewart says. “I was really asking myself, ‘What is the best expression of this particular plant in the glass?’ so if I’m writing about corn – corn is used to make bourbon – I think an Old Fashioned is the best way to appreciate bourbon if you’re going to have a mixed drink.”
“Grow your own” sections appear throughout the book, offering gardeners tips for growing plants such as elderberries, lemon verbena and wormwood. Stewart started a cocktail garden at her home in Eureka, California a couple of years ago where she grows a variety of edibles including herbs, lemongrass, hops, blackcurrant – intended for crème de cassis – and sloe (or blackthorn, which have yet to bear fruit). “It’s a very nice hangout space and of course I use some of those things for cooking as well,” she says. “It’s nice to have something like sage or rosemary or cilantro right outside the kitchen door but actually a lot of them just get used for drinks.”
Stewart recommends that gardeners think about what they like to drink before they plant, and also work with their climate. “I am really bad about zone denial. I’m the one who always wants to grow things that don’t grow in my climate zone,” she says with a laugh. She adds that many of the plants that would suit a cocktail garden also do well in containers – such as small fruit trees like citrus trees – and help create a balcony, deck or garden space that would be perfect to hang out and drink in. Above all else, taking an active hand in plants can help us become better drinkers. “Life is short and there’s no reason to drink bad drinks, so I think once you know what goes into a drink maybe you’re more likely to seek out fresh ingredients and stay away from artificial flavourings and colourings,” Stewart says. “There are only so many drinks that you can have, right? So why not make them count? Make them good.”