I don’t garden, but I find reading about it incredibly relaxing. Reading about drinking doubly so. Reading “The Drunken Botanist”, Amy Stewart’s book about the kind of plants that go into drinking, turned my grumpy can’t-believe-I’m-back-at-work-Monday lunchtime into a blissed-out self-therapy hour.
First, “The Drunken Botanist” is beautiful. It’s designed with dark greens and line drawings, and its contents are organised in tidy alphabetical order within their categories. Even the font is calming.
Amy Stewart knows and loves plants, and the general tone of the book is wandering through a garden with a friend going “ooh, agave! You should see the row the USDA had over classifying this! Go grab those jalapenos over there and we’ll do cocktails.”
The first third is a methodical guide through the plants involved in eleven major spirits and drinks, including cocktail recipes and drink recommendations to show off their best flavours. I was pleased to find there is a scientific reason for the habit of adding a few drops of water to a dram of whisky: “Water actually loosens the hold that alcohol has on aromatic molecules, which heightens rather than dilutes the flavor.“
(It’s always nice when science backs up my personal preferences.)
There’s also a fun tag about more unusual plants people drink, including cassava, jackfruit (“The jackfruit may be the largest fruit from which an alcoholic beverage is made“) and parsnips.
The middle section is on herbs and spices – some of them a little more tangential to drinking than others – and in the final third, “At last we venture into the garden”, Stewart discusses garnishes and other herbal cocktail ingredients you can grow at home.
Stewart’s voice is engaging – although I’d have liked a few more jokes – which is good because with a book like this there’s a risk of sounding too much like an encyclopedia. That said, there is a lot of information in “The Drunken Botanist” and I would have liked a slightly more comprehensive table of contents.
“The Drunken Botanist” is a contribution to the foodie (“drinkie”?) trend around knowing where our food comes from, either from growing it ourselves or getting nerdy about provenance. (Next time you need to distract someone at a craft beer gathering, try starting a conversation about Cascade vs Citra hops.) I like it for that, because it makes me feel I’m participating in a good food movement without actually having to change anything I’m doing.
(I may be speaking too soon here – the problem with these kinds of books is that I pick them up for a few moments on a Sunday afternoon and end up on a London-wide quest for ginger syrup and a bottle of Cynar.)
Most of Stewart’s previous books are about horticulture, not drinking, and that’s probably why “The Drunken Botanist” isn’t as mean and opinionated as the best books about cocktails are. About a martini, the cocktail that can spark a fistfight among any self-respecting drinks writers, she has only this to say:
Bartenders who put a splash of vermouth in a glass, swirl it around, and toss it out before filling the glass with gin are not mixing a drink; they’re simply selling you a glass of gin.
To which the immediate response is “Well, and what’s wrong with a glass of gin?”
As a book about drinking I wish it had a little more bite, but as a book about plants, “The Drunken Botanist” is comprehensive, interesting and gorgeous. I’d buy it in hardcover just to take it out and look at it when I’m feeling overwhelmed.
My review copy of “The Drunken Botanist” by Amy Stewart (2013) was provided by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
*The Drunken Botanist is published in the UK by Timber Press, and launches on May 2 here. Until then, there’s a website and blog with a great voice, which I wish had made it into the book more: The Drunken Botanist.