Amy Stewart discusses the botany of booze at Edgartown Books


Amy Stewart could not understand how her friend, a landscape designer, did not like gin. Of course taste buds vary, but as a plant person, surely he must at least be interested in gin. What more was gin than juniper, and coriander, and lavender?

“Everything that’s in a bottle, behind a bar or in a liquor store, is a plant,” she said in an interview with The Times. Finally, in hopes of deflecting her teasing, the friend asked, “Why don’t you write a book about it?” So she did.

“The Drunken Botanist,” a New York Times bestseller by Ms. Stewart, explores the plants that make up favorite alcoholic beverages across the world.

“I wanted to look at the plants that we turn into alcohol — like sugar cane in the case of rum or barley in beer — and then all of the plants that are used in the distillery to change the flavor — like the juniper in gin,” Ms. Stewart said. “In the last part of the book, I look at herbs, fruits, and other plants that we use as mixers and garnishes.” She also includes tips for growing some of these plants in gardens, and recipes for preparing the drinks at home.

All of Ms. Stewart’s six books are based in plant sciences that delve into historical contexts. While writing “The Drunken Botanist,” she contacted a number of experts and primary sources. “I interviewed scientists, botanists, agricultural experts, historians, and even archaeologists,” she said. “I interviewed people like Patrick McGovern, who analyzes residue on shards of pottery from archaeological digs to find out what people were drinking 10,000 years ago.”

During the process, Ms. Stewart discovered countless plants that make up unique drinks around the globe. “There’s quite a number of things that might surprise people,” she said. “For instance, sorghum is a grain that is used around the world to make a lot of alcohols. In Africa it’s used in a homemade beer, in China a high proofed beer called maotai contains it, and we’re now seeing it in the U.S. in gluten-free beers.”

Perhaps one of the most unique plants discussed in the book is the monkey puzzle tree, an ancient and exotic looking conifer native to Chile, which, Ms. Stewart said, “was definitely growing during the era of the dinosaurs.” The cones of the monkey puzzle tree produce a seed similar to a pine nut, which Chileans use to make a native tribal drink. “This drink is made from the oldest plant in the world, and the Chilean government has declared the Monkey Puzzle tree a National Monument, so it may be the only drink made from a National Monument,” she said.

“The Drunken Botanist” has proved itself a hit among those interested in gardening, plant science, and history. “And it’s very popular in the cocktail crowd,” the author said. “Anyone who likes a drink is interested.”

Ms. Stewart will speak about and sign copies of the book at Edgartown Books on Saturday, July 27, at 5 pm. Of her current book tour, Ms. Stewart said, “It’s always exciting when people respond well, and it’s fun for me to travel around and meet so many people that are interested in the same things I am…this will be a fun trip.”

Champagne Mojito

1 oz. white rum

.5 oz. simple syrup (see note)

.5 oz. fresh-squeezed lime juice

2-3 sprigs fresh spearmint

3-4 oz. sparkling wine (“A dry Spanish cava works well. Segura Viudas is an excellent affordable option. Please don’t use a rock-bottom cheap brand.”)

Fresh or frozen strawberries, blueberries, or raspberries. Fruit can be left whole, but if the strawberries are large, slice them.

Crushed ice

Note: To make simple syrup, heat equal parts sugar and water until the sugar melts. Allow to cool. Keep refrigerated and use within two weeks.

Reserve one mint sprig for garnish. In a cocktail shaker, muddle the first four ingredients. Shake with ice and strain into a champagne flute or tall, skinny Collins glass filled with a mixture of crushed ice and whole berries. Top with 3-4 oz. sparkling wine and garnish with mint.