Despite my love-hate relationship with potted plants (they keep dying), the title of this book immediately caught my attention. Maybe that’s because I have a love-love relationship with liquors and most kinds of alcohol, who knows. While writing this review, I was sipping a good red port and musing over all the great anecdotes in this book. The book is best described as an encyclopaedia of the botanical origins of drinks, and how people came to make alcohol out of every plant they could find, such as the banana. Sometimes I really do admire the inventiveness of humans. So grab a nice drink of your choosing and let me tell you a bit more about this book.
The book is divided into three parts. The first one talks about the most common plants used to transform the sugar within into alcohol through fermentation. Amy Stewart compares the process where plants soak up carbon dioxide and sunlight to turn it into sugar which fermentation turns into alcohol, with the process where plants create oxygen out of sunlight that sustains life on earth. Both processes of indispensable importance to living on this earth. This comparison shows the reference given to a good drink in this book. This is even more articulated when Stewart talks about the best ingredients to make a cocktail, and that one should really strive to find those ingredients. The chapter ends with lesser known plants used to create alcohol, such as parsnips, the cochineal bug, and bamboo. This shows that people will try anything to get their hands on some alcohol.
The second part of the book goes into all the different botanical stuff brewers put into their drinks to add flavour such as spices, flowers, part of trees and seeds. This is where the book gets most interesting with lots of nice stories. One of them is about Bonnie Prince Charlie who got refuge on the Isle of Skye after he failed to regain the throne of England. Allegedly he gave the recipe of Drambuie, a kind of honey whiskey, as thanks to the people of Skye. There are also stories of people claiming to have more than 100 different ingredients in their spirits, stories of illegal ingredients and a liquor that gets its taste from being shipped around the world for almost four months, crossing the equator twice. The last one might sound excessive, but the resulting drink, Linie Aquavit, has a really nice taste, so I’d say it’s worth it. Although, I cannot say whether the taste comes from the voyage or good brewing of course. At any rate, it is a great story to sell the drink.
The third part of this book is an account of the final stage of cocktail making: the garnishes. This part has gardening tips for if you want to grow your own ingredients, or as Stewart claims: “mint for Mohito has to be homegrown”. Although I do agree with her, this will be frustrating to read for people who live in an apartment building like me. But still, this is a nice chapter to fantasize about your future garden you’re definitely going to have when you’re grown up and have a proper house. Besides gardening tips, this chapter gives some potential uses of garnishes to flavour drinks yourself. This includes one of my favourites: infused vodka. One tip that Stewart gives when you want to try it yourself is so great that I’ll share it here:
(…) some plants, particularly tender green herbs like basil or cilantro, produce bitter, strange flavours if they’ve been soaked for too long. To get around this, make a small batch as a test, and taste it frequently, starting just a few hours after the infusion has begun. (p.343)
Advice few people will have problems with.
This book is a combination of a serious botanical account, with growing tips that all seemed very sensible to me as a non-gardener. Also, there are funny stories and advice how to make the best cocktails and where to find the highest-quality ingredients. The book ends with a list of recommended readings for the reader who wants to know more. This combination of informative and entertaining works very well, especially because the topic of alcohol lends itself well for humorous accounts. It is a tricky balance though, because sometimes authors try to be too funny, losing credibility during the more serious parts of a book. Amy Stewart doesn’t do that: there is a clear division between the serious and funny parts. It might not be the kind of book you will read from cover to cover in one go: that will probably make you forget all the names of the plants and drinks, even when you’re reading it completely sober. It is the kind of book you pick up once in a while and read a few chapters from to have something new to tell next time you’re enjoying a drink in a bar or pub.
One downside of this book is that a lot of the liquors and ingredients mentioned are too obscure to get a hold on. I don’t know if that’s because I’m not an American, and Amy Stewart is, that is difficult to say. In many a chapter, she talks about a delicious drink you as a reader will never be able to taste in person, because it’s from one small family owned brewery in the highlands of Scotland or something like that. This makes sense for an account of plants used for alcohol from all over the world, but is also a bit disappointing. Luckily, there are cocktail recipes in the book you can try for yourself. One of my favourites so far is ‘the ‘Vavilov affair’, which is a cocktail made with apple and bourbon. The cocktail is named after the Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov, who risked everything to preserve the wild ancestors of the apple tree. Sadly, Stalin considered him an enemy of the state and Vavilov spend the end of his life in jail. Luckily, we have a great cocktail to remember him and his love of apples by.
Drunk award for giving us so many more ways to enjoy the wonder of alcohol.
Amy Stewart, the drunken botanist (New York, 2013)
Bella G. Bear