The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks by Amy Stewart. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books; 2013. Hardcover, 381 pages. ISBN: 978-1-61620-046-6. $19.95.
The subtitle “The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks” imparts The Drunken Botanist’s precise theme. In her most recent book, author Amy Stewart writes extensively on specific plants and their corresponding contributions to alcoholic beverages of all sorts.
The book comprises three parts: Part I explores the fermentation and distillation of 30 plants from agave to wheat; Part II explores the role of herbs, spices, fruits, nuts, bark, roots, and flowers as ingredients and additives in distilled beverages; and Part III takes readers into the garden to explore plant-inspired mixers and garnishes. The inclusion of the Recommended Reading section at the end of the book — divided into recipes and gardening — indicates the depth of research and continued support the author provides. Stewart also encourages the reader to get in touch through her website, DrunkenBotanist.com, in her cleverly titled afterword, “Digestif.”
The 19-page index provides a wonderful cross-reference for the names of drinks, plants, recipes, ingredients, places, businesses, and individuals who played a significant role in creating or discovering the botanical beverages. The total is greater than the sum of its parts in The Drunken Botanist, and Amy Stewart has furnished historic perspective, entertained with stories, supported with facts, and offered her insights into the use of plants in cocktails, beer, and wine.
Part II, “Herbs and Spices,” offers the knowledgeable herbalist even greater insights into the traditional uses of many common and obscure herbs. It begins with allspice (Pimenta dioica, Myrtaceae), as it was named so aptly in 1686 by John Ray in Historia Plantarum. The Spanish had called it pimento, assuming it to be a pepper as they saw it being added to food in the West Indies. Allspice trees were overharvested in Jamaica for their aromatic, unbending wood, which was used by the English to make umbrellas and walking sticks. In their attempts to spread spice trees, traders found allspice impossible to germinate and discovered the seed needed to pass through the digestive tract of a bat to soften. (What a lot of information to discover about one plant in so few paragraphs!) And thus it is that Stewart delivers more than just how to mix the perfect cocktail, but also the history of its use. In the case of allspice, Stewart’s history lesson leads to the Bay Rum recipe, which calls for St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram. As an herbalist, it makes me want to drop allspice berries into a bottle of dark rum and see what happens.
The Drunken Botanist contains so many wonderful cocktail recipes that I experienced a strong desire to try every beverage and recipe. How, then, will I choose? Must I drink my way through? Shall I use the inspiration to create more cordials? Perhaps Stewart’s next book should be titled The Inebriated Herbalist.
If I need to make any mention of what does not serve me as a reader, it is the choice to print the pages in chartreuse. As much as I love green, this color was difficult for my eyes. For adults who enjoy plants, this book is worthy of your time and consideration. I think it is a wonderful gift item, especially paired with a special glass or bottle of Aviation gin.
Founder, Green Comfort Herbal Apothecary