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Amy Stewart – The Drunken Botanist

May 24, 2013

LibraryThing Early Reviewers35. The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks by Amy Stewart (2013)

Length: 400 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction

Started: 11 April 2013
Finished: 01 May 2013

Where did it come from? LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.
Why do I have it? I like science, and I like cocktails, so it seemed a natural fit.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 19 February 2013.

Got a garden? Got
a bar? This book takes you from
one to the other.

Around the world, it seems, there is not a tree or shrub or delicate wildflower that has not been harvested, brewed, and bottled. Every advance in botanical exploration or horticultural science brought with it a corresponding uptick in the quality of our spirituous liquors. Drunken botanists? Given the role they play in creating the world’s great drinks, it’s a wonder there are any sober botanists at all. –Location 119

Summary: The Drunken Botanist is, as evidenced by the quote above, a look at the various plants – and there’s a lot of them – that go into producing various varieties of alcohol all over the world. It’s written a bit like an encylopedia: a collection of short essays about each plant, with a description of how it is used in alcohol production and its flavor (for some of the less-well-known species) as well as some of its relevant natural and cultural history. Stewart builds the book the same way one would build a cocktail – starting out with the plants that contribute to the base spirits and other standard drinks (agave, apple, barley, corn, grapes, potato, rice, rye, sorghum, sugarcane, and wheat), then moving into the variety of plants used to flavor various liquors, and finally touching on the remaining plants most frequently used as mixers. There are also tips on growing your own bartender’s garden, as well as more than 60 recipes scattered throughout the books in their relevant sections, including classics (and slight variations on classics) and some more modern creations.

Review: While this book took me seemingly forever to get through, I think that was more a product of the structure of the book than of anything else. The short-essay/article format of this book made it wonderful for the commute – get on the bus, read about a plant or two, get off the bus – but it simultaneously made it almost impossible to read straight through. But apart from that, this book was definitely a fun and interesting read. Stewart manages to pack in not only the basics of how fermentation and distillation work to produce alcohol, but plenty of history on how and when each of the plants became involved in the process (“The tradition of flavoring alcohol with apricots seems to have begun about ten minutes after the introduction of the apricots themselves.”), and lots of great trivia (“Next time you pull a piece of silk from between your teeth while you’re eating a fresh ear of corn, remember that you’ve just spat out a fallopian tube.”), all with a light, easy-to-read style and a humorous edge.

While I already had a pretty good grasp on the science of fermentation, I did learn quite a bit about how the specific process varies for each of the different species of plants involved, and I picked up some useful trivia. (For instance, the word “proof” as a measure of the alcohol content of various liquors comes from the fact that if the rum rations on British naval ships were watered down, they wouldn’t catch fire when mixed with gunpowder and lit – a test which was demanded as “proof” that sailors weren’t being cheated with watery rum.) I also came away from this book with an increased appreciation for the more high-quality liquors – particularly liqueurs that are actually made from the fruit in question, rather than loaded with artificial flavoring – and have started to cast a skeptical eye on some of the cheaper bottles in my bar. (Although on that tip, it turns out that Amaretto di Saronno doesn’t actually contain almonds, but instead the closely-related apricot kernel.) And while I probably won’t be growing my own pomegranates for grenadine, I’ve got a pot of mint on the back porch (as should everyone who enjoys cocktails!), and I will certainly be mixing up some of the recipes Stewart provides. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: This book would be great for the cocktail enthusiasts out there, particularly (but not exclusively) those with a scientific bent.

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First Line: The inspiration for this book came from a chance encounter at a convention of garden writers in Portland, Oregon.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • Location. 2364: “The artichoke got its start as a cardoon.” – A Mediterranean plant (Cynara cardunculus) closely related to the artichoke, cultivated for its edible leafstalks and roots.
    .
  • Location. 3834: “In 1847, the British botanist John Lindley wrote that it “furnishes the inhabitants of Tasmannia with a copious supply of a cool, refreshing, slightly aperient liquid, which ferments and acquires the properties of beer.”” – gently stimulating evacuation of the bowels; laxative.
    .

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 24, 2013 10:31 am

    That sounds like a great book to keep in the bathroom! lol

    • May 31, 2013 10:50 am

      Kathy – It is formatted like a bathroom book, no doubt! Although that’d maybe be a little weird, since I wound up craving cocktails every time I picked it up. :)

  2. May 24, 2013 10:41 am

    Always wanted to read this but now you’ve got me stoked. I’ve got a copy from netgalley and it’s been on my tbr pile so now I’ma bump it up the list.

  3. May 30, 2013 8:32 am

    I’ve been eyeing this for some time. I think a friend rec’d it. And I actually have a few cocktails on my tbt (to be tasted). For example, I overheard a bartender create/describe a basil gimlet and I’ve been wanting one every since. He suggests it for people who *think* they don’t like gin – he used Hendrick’s.

    • May 31, 2013 10:53 am

      Care – I have friends who LURRRVE Hendrick’s, and it is tasty, but I like non-super-fancy gin just fine too. :) Pimm’s cups are one of my favorite drinks, especially in the summer, and are also a good way of hiding gin for people who think they don’t like it.

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