A chat with Amy Stewart, The Drunken Botanist | Bleader

A chat with Amy Stewart, The Drunken Botanist

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Like so many great book ideas, Amy Stewart's latest was born in a bar.

It began when Stewart discovered that her drinking companion, a landscape designer and writer, didn't like gin. She was flabbergasted.

"I said, 'How can you not be interested in gin?!'" Stewart remembers. "It's all distilled plants. Juniper, coriander, citrus . . ."

As the evening wore on and more gin was consumed, Stewart came to a startling epiphany: Every single bottle behind the bar was filled with plants. Grapes! Corn! Barley! Somebody should write a book about it!

Now it was Stewart's friend's turn to have an epiphany. Stewart was already the author of several books about plants and gardening, including Wicked Plants and Flower Confidential. Why shouldn't she be the one to write that book about plants and booze?

"Fortunately," says Stewart, "I was able to read my handwriting the next morning." And now, after several years of serious research, The Drunken Botanist has finally arrived in bookstores. Stewart herself will be in town next week to do a few readings and sample plants in all their fermented and distilled glory.

Stewart, hard at work researching.
  • Stewart, hard at work researching
The Drunken Botanist is a vast compendium of information about all the plants we drink. Stewart's research is exhaustive—"a freakish amount of research," she admits. If there's a story about plants and booze to be debunked, Stewart will debunk it. "There's a lot of myths and misinformation in the botany world," she says, "but I had no idea how much more nonsense there is in the booze world."

Take Fernet Branca, for instance. Production of this bitter Italian digestif is said to consume three-quarters of the world's saffron supply. That figure set off Stewart's bullshit detector. So she did a little sleuthing and learned, via liquor industry trade journals, that Fernet Branca produces 3.85 million cases annually. And then she did the math. If Fernet Branca used as much saffron as rumored, each bottle would contain one-sixth of an ounce, which sells at wholesale for about $25. A bottle of Fernet Branca retails for between $20 and $30. There's no way the manufacturers could afford to use that much saffron.

"It's a little thing," says Stewart, "but it drives me crazy! Any story involving a famous person, like Benjamin Franklin or Cleopatra, I'm always suspicious and say, 'No, they didn't!' And then I'll go back to the primary sources, like an original document from Germany that was written 200 years ago."

A peach julep and Bess, the chicken.
  • Amy Stewart
  • A peach julep and Bess, the chicken
Not all of Stewart's research was conducted in libraries or over a calculator. What would be the fun in writing a book about booze if you didn't get to sample it every now and then? (And, make no mistake, The Drunken Botanist is a very fun book to read, even if you have a black thumb.) So there were visits to distilleries, both famous and obscure. The famous distilleries, places like Chartreuse, were "Disnified," Stewart reports, although with excellent gift shops. The not-so-famous places were more willing to let Stewart into their back rooms and take pictures of barrels filled with dried plant matter which, since Stewart knows plants, was fairly easy to identify.

"In the United States," Stewart says, "I'm happy to see distillers moving away from secrecy. People are interested in what's in the bottle. It's why it's special. It's not like anyone is going to steal the recipe. It's about more than going to the spice store and buying some ingredients. It's about the process and the technology."

The Drunken Botanist is filled with plenty of discoveries, both large and small. Did you know, for instance, that in 1938 a chemist discovered that a plant steroid derived from sarsaparilla could be used to manufacture progesterone, a discovery that paved the way for the birth control pill? Or that bottlers of Poire Williams, a French pear brandy, get the pear in the bottle by slipping the bottle over the pears when they're still tiny and then letting them continue to hang from the tree as the pears grow to full size?

Stewarts own cocktail garden, outside her home in California.
  • Amy Stewart
  • Stewart's own cocktail garden, outside her home in California

Stewart also very considerately includes drink recipes and growing tips for those brave enough to attempt their own cocktail garden. "Start with things you like to use in your drinks," she advises, "and what works well in your climate." A lot of fun can be had by growing specialized varieties of certain herbs, like the mojito mint from Cuba for (what else?) mojitos or the Kentucky colonel mint for mint juleps. And for city apartment dwellers, she recommends BrazelBerries, potted blueberries and raspberries that don't require trellises to grow properly.

Although Stewart was unaware of the Reader's Cocktail Challenge feature, at one point, she appears to be issuing a direct throw-down: "It does not appear that anyone has had the wit or courage to invent a cocktail that uses cassareep [a syrup made from cassava root] as an ingredient—yet."

What else might inspire the bartenders of our fair city?

"A lot of vegetables are not used very much in drinks," Stewart offers. "There's a whole side of the vegetable world: squash, radishes, turnips, carrots, beets—although I have had fantastic beet cocktails—pumpkins, ramps. Do you have ramps in your part of the country?"

Stewart will be reading from and discussing The Drunken Botanist on Monday 4/8 at 7 PM at The Bookstall at Chestnut Court (811 Elm, Winnetka) and on Tuesday 4/9 at at the Standard Club (320 S. Plymouth Ct.) at 11:30 AM and Anderson's Bookshop (123 W. Jefferson, Naperville) at 7 PM.

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