Originally published 4/18/13 in Chico News & Review.
Thanks to Sex and the City, Mad Men and an explosion of artisan distillers, the country is obsessed with cocktail culture, and last call is nowhere in sight. While some drinkers look for tradition and authenticity in their highballs, others look to redefine the standards and push the boundaries of what we expect out of a cocktail.
In The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Best Drinks, Amy Stewart leaves this dissension behind and takes libations back to their roots on a journey that’s as refreshing as a mint julep on a hot day. By examining more than 150 well-known and obscure ingredients that go into alcohol and cocktails from a botanical perspective, Stewart—author of bestseller Wicked Plants—simultaneously embraces tradition and innovation in search of a great cocktail.
The Eureka-based author breaks the book down into three sections that roughly follow the farm-to-cocktail process—fermentation and distillation, infusion, and mixers and garnishes. It all begins with the plants we associate with the creation of alcohol, such as potatoes, wheat and corn, but deeper into the book, the real fun begins as the ingredients become more obscure. Agave and grapes give way to monkey puzzle, bison grass, sassafras and yuzu. With each ingredient, Stewart lays out a combination of botanical, cultural, historical, gardening and culinary tidbits of information that form the perfect combination of brevity and lesser-known facts for cocktail party conversation. And she maintains a balance between drunken revelry and botanical order by making the natural world and Latin etymology approachable while ensuring a fascinating or humorous anecdote is never far off.
In the section on pomegranates, Stewart explains that grenadine began as sweet pomegranate syrup taking its name from the French word for pomegranate, grenade—a word also given to the handheld explosive that shares the size and shape of the fruit. Today, we know grenadine as artificial viscous red syrup, but Stewart urges us to scour specialty shops for pomegranate-based grenadine or, better yet, make our own batch at home with the included recipe. It’s in instances such as these that Stewart mends the fences between traditional and modern cocktail culture—modern mixologists and artisan distillers as well as 18th-century Parisians and New World settlers agree that the key to an exceptional drink is exceptional ingredients.
While the book contains more than 50 recipes, many of the ingredients are uncommon. At first, when you’re scanning for a drink to mix up and enjoy while diving into the book, it’s off-putting to stumble upon recipe after recipe reliant upon crème de violette, elderflowers, sorghum syrup, or other ingredients that may be readily available at specialty shops or online, but probably won’t be found in your liquor cabinet. However, this is a blessing in disguise because The Drunken Botanist doesn’t contain re-hashed recipes for Tequila Sunrise, Sex on the Beach or Jägerbombs. Instead, we’re challenged with unique flavors in cocktails you won’t find at Applebee’s, such as The Douglas Expedition (see recipe), which includes a Douglas fir eau de vie. Accompanying the recipe is an anecdote on how McCarthy’s Clear Creek Distillery in Oregon uses an infusion of buds from the Douglas fir to create the green, forest-scented spirit.
Throughout the book, Stewart infuses the anecdotes, recipes and historical information with a voice that loves the natural world and good booze. Neither the author nor the book buy into theatricalities behind the bar—referencing the practice of lighting sambuca on fire, Stewart chides drinkers to just, “sip it like an adult.” The result is a book that emulates the plants and drinks it honors—unique, colorful, intriguing and something you want to share with guests at your next party.
The Douglas Expedition
1 ounce London dry gin
1 ounce Douglas fir eau de vie
1/2 ounce St-Germain elderflower
Juice of 1 lemon wedge
Shake all the ingredients with ice and serve in a cocktail glass.
And for a drink from Stewart’s book with easier-to-find ingredients:
The Frank Meyer Expedition
1 1/2 ounces vodka
3/4 ounce simple syrup
3/4 ounce Meyer lemon juice
Dry sparkling wine or sparkling water
Shake the vodka, simple syrup, and lemon juice over ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Float sparkling wine (or sparkling water) on top and garnish with lemon peel.