Best-selling writer explains the history and flavors behind alcohol

Best-selling writer explains the history and flavors behind alcohol

Staff writerApril 3, 2013 

The next time you knock back a cocktail, quaff a beer or sip a glass of wine, thank a plant. Because when it comes to alcohol, a bartender may be superfluous but plants never are.

Author Amy Stewart has thoroughly explored the plants that aid our tippling in “The Drunken Botanist,” the follow-up to her best-selling nonfiction books “Wicked Plants” and “Wicked Bugs.”

Stewart explores the history and science behind more than 150 plants. Plus a few fungi.

Not only do flowers, fruits and spices provide flavor, but every alcoholic beverage owes its existence to at least one plant. Wheat for beer, grapes for wine, sugar cane/beets for liqueur, apples for cider, agave for tequila. But that’s only scratching the surface.

As Stewart says, there isn’t a bottle in a liquor store she can’t assign a genus and species to.

Question: How much of the alcohol you write about did you actually sample?

Answer: Far too many. You cannot believe what my liquor bills have been looking like during the last few years when I was able to call it a business expense. Everything I wrote about I thought, “We have to try this.”

Q: It seems that every culture on Earth has learned how to take its native flora and turn it into an inebriating beverage.

A: Almost every culture with the exception of native people of northern North America. It’s not just because we all love to drink but because when you’re drinking something that’s even lightly fermented, 3 to 4 percent alcohol, it may well be safer than your local water source if it’s coming from a river or a pond.

Q: The botanical input to a drink seems to occur at multiple stages: base, flavoring and mixer. What’s a good example of all three in action?

A: In a martini you’ve got the gin which is probably made from a grain base. To that they add juniper, which is why we call it gin, and other botanicals like citrus peel, coriander and other herbs and spices. With the vermouth it starts with a wine base and they usually add a higher-proof alcohol to proof it up to about 17 percent. That is probably a fruit base like a brandy or eau-de-vie. Then they add herbs and spices like citrus or bark, maybe a dozen plants in all. In the final stage you’re adding an olive or lemon twist.

Q: I had no idea a simple martini had so many botanical ingredients.

A: I’m doing a lot of events where they want to do a cocktail and they say, “We need your help thinking of one that’s botanical.” That’s kind of the point of the book. They’re all botanical. We could just have a beer. That’s botanical.

Q: Did you have to make room in your wicked plant garden (in Eureka, Calif.) for cocktail plants?

A: Yes, that’s where they went. The poison plant garden got pushed to the side. I was starting to stick pots of edible stuff (in the poison plant garden) to make drinks with and it was getting a little worrisome. I know the difference between the parsley and the hemlock but if there’s a house guest over here, I can’t guarantee that everyone is going to be able to tell those apart. So the poison garden had to give way to the cocktail garden. It’s actually a very pretty garden.

Q: What plants/alcohol do you associate with Washington?

A: Hops grow easily in the Pacific Northwest because hops have a specific requirement for day length. The Pacific Northwest has really figured out hops growing. And, of course, all the Pacific Northwest fruits: cherries, berries. And wines of course. But it’s nice to see more grain growing. Whiskey and gin makers are starting to take advantage of that and make locally sourced gins and whiskeys.

Q: Why is beer sold in brown bottles? Corona notwithstanding.

A: Hops are added to beer to give the flavor bitterness and also act as a preservative. The alpha acids in hops that end up in beer don’t hold up very long in sunlight. They start to break down and you start to get these nasty, skunk-like flavors that beer makers refer to as “light struck” and it’s a nasty flavor. You’ll recognize even in a pint glass that’s sitting out it the sun while you’re having a leisurely afternoon on the deck. You’ll notice it by the time you get to the bottom of that glass. The reason some (clear bottled) beers are marketed with “put a lime or lemon in it” – well, that’s to cover up taste.

Q: What myths did you bust in your research?

A: It’s a myth you should keep your gin or vodka in the freezer. You should keep it at room temperature and plan on shaking in a lot of ice. Water makes such a difference (in releasing the flavors of spirits). Another habit people need to get out of is keeping a bottle Vermouth sitting around too long on a shelf collecting dust. It’s wine and you have to treat it like wine. You’ve got to keep it in the fridge and use it pretty quickly and buy small bottles.

Q: Are you pro cork?

A: I love screw-top wine bottles. It makes all the sense in the world. It’s a pretty good seal. Most of us aren’t going go to through a bottle of wine soon enough anyway. But I do feel strongly for the cork producers. It’s a very sustainable product. They’re only taking bark off the trees and the trees heal and re-grow. And it preserves the cork forests. It gives an economic reason for the forests to be there so they don’t cut them all down and put up condos.

Q: What could we be growing and making here that we’re currently not?

A: I would like to see more European hedge row plants. I’m on a crusade to get people to grow more sloe – what you make sloe gin from. Black currants, which were once banned in the U.S. for a long time, but which are now viable and growable. And I got turned on to Aronia (a berry-producing shrub) at the Seattle flower and garden show. I had some juice at the show. It was so good. You can totally make a liqueur from it.

Q: Do you really spank your herbs?

A: I will if I’m going to use them in a garnish. If you’re going to drop a leaf in a drink just before you give it to somebody give it a good hard spank and it’ll do its job. If you don’t do that it’s just going to sit there and just be a leaf.

Q: After researching this book what do you now relax with on a Friday night?

A: I’ve become a big drinker of vermouth all by itself. (Oregon-based brand) Imbue is really amazing. The dry variety is called Bittersweet. The sweet is called Petal & Thorn. They’re so well-made and so drinkable on their own. Anytime I’m in a bar in the Pacific Northwest that has Imbue I order equal parts sweet and dry. That’s not an unusual cocktail in Europe. People drink a lot of those aperitif wines and aromatized wines straight up. I get funny looks from bartenders.

Cocktail-friendly plants for your backyard:

Borage: Star-shaped blue flowers are edible and make colorful garnishes frozen in ice cubes. A traditional garnish for a Pimm’s Cup. The fuzzy leaves taste vaguely like cucumber.

Elderflower: Not only can the flowers and berries be made into infusions and syrups but the plants themselves are stunning additions to the landscape. “Black Lace” has dark brown foliage and clusters of pink/white flowers in spring. “Sutherland Gold” is a chartreuse-foliaged variety.

Hops: Home brewers can also be home growers of this essential beer ingredient. The fast-growing vines are highly ornamental.

Lemon verbena: The citrus-scented leaves can be made into infusions and syrups.

Rhubarb: A popular, big-leaved plant in Puget Sound, the stalks can be turned into a simple syrup for cocktails.

Currant: The primary ingredient in cassis, these berries also make great garnishes.

The Drunken Botanist Plant Collection

Author Amy Stewart has teamed up with Oregon-based Log House Plants and Territorial Seeds to create a collection of cocktail-friendly herbs, fruits, vegetables, and flowers inspired by “The Drunken Botanist.”


Lavandula Intoxicataea

1-1.5 ounces Dry Fly Gin, Aviation Gin, or Hendricks’ Gin

1 quarter fresh lemon

4 ounces Dry Soda, lavender flavor

A dash of Scrappy’s Lavender Bitters or Bar Keep Lavender Spice bitters

Garnish options: Fresh lavender sprig, Johnny jump-up (viola), pansy, borage blossom, or lemon twist


In a tall, skinny Collins glass or a short tumbler filled with ice, pour gin over ice.

Squeeze one lemon wedge over ice and drop into glass.

Top with Dry Lavender Soda and a dash of Scrappy’s Lavender Bitters.


Pimm’s Cup

1 part Pimm’s No. 1

3 parts lemonade

Sliced cucumbers, oranges and strawberries

Spearmint leaves

Borage blossoms or leaves (optional)

Fill a pitcher or glass with ice and add all ingredients. Stir well.

The Mamani Gin & Tonic

11/2 ounces gin

1 jalapeno (or milder), seeded, cored and sliced

2 to 3 sprigs fresh cilantro or basil

1 cucumber (1 chunk and 1 sizzle-stick shaped slice needed)

High-quality tonic

3 red or orange cherry tomatoes

In a cocktail shaker, muddle the gin with 2 slices of the jalapeno, 1 sprig of cilantro and the chunk of cucumber

Fill a highball glass with ice; layer in 1 or 2 slices of jalapeno, a sprig of cilantro and the slice of cucumber

Strain the gin and pour over ice. Fill the glass with tonic water; garnish with cherry tomatoes on a pick.

1 ounce London dry gin

1 ounce Douglas fir eau-de-vie

1/2 ounce St. Germain elderflower cordial

Juice of 1 lemon wedge

Shake all ingredients with ice and serve in a cocktail glass.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541

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