It all started with a bottle of gin someone gave a friend of Amy Stewart at a convention of garden writers. The gin recipient was less than thrilled with the gift – “I don’t know what to do with this,” he said – until Stewart suggested a scrumptious-sounding cocktail of fresh jalapenos, cilantro and cherry tomatoes.
On their way to get the ingredients, she rhapsodized on the horticultural pedigree of gin – juniper, coriander, citrus peel, lavender buds, “an alcohol extraction of all these crazy plants from around the world – tree bark and leaves and seeds and flowers and fruit.” Inside a liquor store, she gestured wildly and pronounced, “This is horticulture! In all of these bottles!”
Thus, before even a sip was taken, “The Drunken Botanist” was born.
It’s another endlessly entertaining and enlightening book from the author of “Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities” and “Wicked Bugs: The Louse that Conquered Napoleon’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects.” With her foray into the world of “The Plants that Create the World’s Great Drinks,” Stewart combines a jigger of history, a splash of science, a dram of chemistry and a garnish of biology into a most palatable volume.
Anyone whose understanding of the role of plants in the creation of spirits is limited to a dim awareness that grapes go into wine and barley and hops become beer is in for an eye-opening, palate-tingling ride when Stewart comes to town Monday. Starting at 6 p.m. she will talk about her book in the lounge of Mike A’s at the Lafayette, 391 Washington St. She plans to delve into the history, chemistry and even a bit of mythology of the fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers, roots and bark that go into making both familiar and exotic alcoholic drinks.
Both Stewart’s books and cocktails made with some of her recipes will be sold at the event, and she will sign books purchased at the event from Talking Leaves Books.
Like her previous books, “The Drunken Botanist” aims to be entertaining and interesting, with the plentiful transmission of facts as a painless side effect.
“It had to be entertaining to me as I was working on it,” Stewart said in a phone interview from Manhattan on a gorgeous spring day, which she was enjoying in Washington Square Park. “I didn’t want it to be just a dull compendium of information; it should be interesting to read even if you’re not really into the subject.”
And that process continues to this day. “With the exception of maybe a few really cheap synthetic products, every single bottle is just liquefied plant matter, that’s all it is,” Stewart said.
Well, mostly. Some alcoholic preparations famously or sneakily include bugs. The worm found in mezcal is actually the larva of the agave snout weevil; the carmine dye that contributes a ruby red color to some drinks is made from a scale insect called cochineal.
Stewart’s book starts with the classics, then detours into some of the lesser-known sources of alcohol from around the world, which she calls “Strange Brews.”
“I tried to include enough of the really obscure and interesting things from around the world to give people a sense that if you look at Africa, at China or South America, there are these amazing drinking traditions around the world with plants that you might never have heard of,” she said.
Those would be such drinks as beer made from bananas or cassava roots and wine fermented from parsnips or the ponderous jackfruit, which grows up to three feet long and can weigh 100 pounds.
Beyond the basic brew, Stewart provides dozens of plant accents, from fruits and flowers to spices and herbs, to create sensational cocktails, from the familiar to the somewhat freakish – from tobacco liqueur to maidenhair fern syrup.
One of the many plants that gardeners might be able to harvest and use right now is lemon verbena, a kin to the flowering ornamental verbenas with strongly citrus-scented leaves. “Lemon verbena is great with gin, great with rum, great with vodka,” said Stewart.
Tony Rials, beverage director at Mike A’s, not only read Stewart’s book, he “took a ridiculous amount of notes from it” to help him plan a menu of cocktails to be served at the book talk.
“Obviously, it’s right up my alley, because I already manipulate elements in my cocktails,” he said, referring to the drinks list that already contains such tasty ingredients as flower honey, fig-maple syrup, walnut bitters and beet. “It was fun to see the flavor profiles these things actually start from,” said Rials. “This helps me find what complements each other and what I can do with it from that point. I also liked her stories, the old anecdotes about where some of this stuff came from.”
During Stewart’s talk, Rials plans to offer a drink called the Ghost of Negroni, which he describes as “a tequila-based cocktail in which the tequila itself is infused with rosemary, pepper and thyme, and we finish it off with a rhubarb amaro, so it’s got a really big, hearty flavor, and a very strong herbaceous quality to it as well.”
He may add two or three cocktails from Stewart’s book, he said, so patrons may sip and savor while they listen. All will be offered for the standard price of $10.
Although Stewart wrote about 160 plants in “The Drunken Botanist,” she “could have easily explored a few hundred more.” And every day could bring a new discovery, she wrote. “I am certain that at this very moment, a craft distiller in Brooklyn is plucking a weed from a crack in the sidewalk and wondering if it would make a good flavoring for a new line of bitters.”
She said, “There could definitely be a second volume, because it’s hard to imagine any plant anywhere that somebody is not trying to figure out a way to make into alcohol.”