Read This Now: The Drunken Botanist


The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart is not the book I was expecting it to be. I don't know whether I misread the press materials, or simply jumped to a wrong conclusion when hearing the title, but I was expecting to find a book about using seasonal ingredients to make cocktails, infusions, bitters, and the like.

Although books like that have their value, I already own more such books than I currently need, so I found myself uninspired by this book—or, at least, my idea of this book.

But my idea turned out to be wrong, and The Drunken Botanist turned out to be a very engaging book about the botanical origins of our favorite drinks: beer, wine, spirits, and even a mixer or two.

A field of ripening barley. Wikimedia Commons

If you're getting into cocktails and looking to expand your understanding of spirits, wine, beer, and mixed drinks, reading Stewart's book is a great way to do it. You'll come away with a knowledge of what exactly is in your glass and you'll be able to understand how those elements play together to form the flavors and aromas you'll encounter in a well-made drink.

Drinks, Shoots, and Leaves

The book's origins arise from a conversation Stewart had some years ago with a fellow botanist. He told Stewart he disliked gin, and she first vowed to make him a cocktail that would make a gin lover of him, and then expressed her surprise that a botanist could fail to love gin, which is full of botanical ingredients: not only the grain that makes the spirit itself, but also the herbs and spice and citrus that provide gin's robust, complex flavors.

Grapes, Grains, and Grasses

In the book's introduction, Stewart says, "Every great drink starts with a plant" and of course, this is obviously true. Beer starts from barley or other grains; wine, from grapes or other fruit. Vodka comes from grains or potatoes. Whisk(e)y arises from barley, corn, rye, or other grains.

Stewart uses this simple truth as a starting point for a fascinating book, one that rewards a cover-to-cover read. The first part of the book covers the classic booze-worthy plants, the ones used most often to produce alcohol. Here you'll find agave, apple, barley, corn, grapes, and onward through wheat. She discusses the history of each crop and its history as an ingredient in beverage alcohol. She doesn't shy away from unpleasant facts, either, such as the sustainability crisis facing agave agriculture in Mexico, for example.

The first part concludes with a look at less-common or even bizarre plants that have been turned into booze: bananas, cassava, parsnips, and something called a monkey puzzle.

In part two, she turns her green thumb toward the flavoring elements that go into beverage alcohol. Here she first covers herbs and spices—allspice, angelica, bison grass, cardamom, gentian, ginger, juniper, licorice and its relatives, vanilla, wormwood, and many others. Then she hits flowers—chamomile, hops, jasmine, rose, etc. Next up are trees—angostura, birch, cinchona, cinnamon, sugar maple. Next up is fruit—apricots, currents, figs, and the variety of citrus fruits, among others. Finally, she ends part two with a look at nuts and seeds: almond, coffee, hazelnut, kola nut, and walnut.

Gentiana lutea.. Wikimedia Commons

Only in part three, by far the shortest part of the book, does she tackle the topic that I initially thought comprised the entirety of the book: infusions, syrups, homemade liqueurs, and pickles. She even provides instructions on home-brining olives.

The book features several types of informative sidebars. The most practical are the recipes: not just cocktail recipes but instructions for syrups, pickles, and liqueurs such as limoncello.

Another sidebar talks to gardeners and provides DIY advice on growing these crops. Some, of course, are less practical than others. She acknowledges that only the most die-hard of home-brewers, for example, will grow their own barley. But others, such as lemon verbena and black currants, though, are within the grasp of nearly any gardener.

A flowering Lemon verbena, Aloysia triphylla, photographed in Karkur, Israel. Wikimedia Commons

She takes time out to discuss plants that affect booze production without being ingredients of their own: oak (for barrel aging, of course) and cork oak.

Finally, though it's not a plant and therefore not botanical at all, Stewart takes the time to discuss a topic without which, none of these wondrous drinks would be possible: yeast.

A careful and knowledgable reader might find some of the discussion a bit thin, as I did when reading about the history of bourbon, located logically enough in her chapter on corn. But this is excusable; she only has so many pages, and the topic is hefty enough to support an entire botanical library. Further, if you're looking for a book full of recipes for cocktails, syrups, infusions, bitters, liqueurs, mixers, and other plant-based cocktail ingredients, you're simply in the wrong place.

But if you're curious about the plants you're drinking with each toast, I recommend The Drunken Botanist, an delightfully informative and entertaining book about the basic ingredients of beverage alcohol.

Sample book provided for review consideration.