It’s a jungle out there, says best-selling garden author Amy Stewart. At least, that’s what she imagines when she looks at a shelf of bottled spirits, and it’s inspired her to explore the fascinating link between the plants we grow and the beverages we drink in her new book, The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create The World’s Great Drinks (Algonquin Books). (Image: Amy Stewart)
“Our earliest connections with plants,” Stewart says, “apart from using them for food, came from using plants as medicines. Early physicians realized the best way to preserve them was to put the fruit or seeds in alcohol in a bottle, and dole it out to patients as needed. Over time, we started drinking these concoctions for other reasons.”
The idea for the book arose, Stewart says, when another author passed along a bottle of gin he didn’t want. “I told him he should be more interested in gin, because it’s got junipers, fruits, and coriander in it, “ she recalled. “Botany and booze are a global connection. When you walk into a restaurant with a respectable bar, you’ll see stuff made from plants all over the world. Plants bring us together, and alcohol does too, in a way.”
All great drinks have started out as plants, Stewart says. Sake comes from rice, beer from hops, and Scotch from barley. Grapes go into wine and coffee beans make Irish coffee.
Today, distillers are looking for plants to add flavor to new lines of bitters. “The idea is to shake a few drops into a drink to round it out, give it more complexity,” Stewart says. “I’ve had dandelion burdock and lavender bitters.”
But experiments are best left to the experts. “The need for caution really struck me, as the author of a book on poisonous plants,” says Stewart, who also wrote Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities (Algonquin Books). “The fact is, plants do not want to be eaten. Their only defense mechanism, apart from bearing thorns or other mechanical defenses, is to make chemicals that sicken anyone or any animal that tries to eat them.”
“Respect how powerful Mother Nature is,” she cautions. “Don’t walk through the neighborhood and drop plants in a bottle of vodka. Don’t inadvertently poison yourself. The idea of foraging and wild foods, if you don’t know what you’re doing, is very silly.”
So what can we gardeners brew up at home? Suppose we want to preserve our olives or citrus or sip a nightcap?
“A great way to use up the surplus fruit from your garden,” Stewart says, “Is to clean blackberries or raspberries and drop them into a Mason jar or bottle and fill it with decent vodka, not the cheap stuff. Within a few days, you’ll have a nice fruit liquor. Add sugar to sweeten it, if you desire, and strain out the fruit. It’s very easy to do.”
There’s a movement toward more savory drinks these days, Stewart points out. “Not everything is about sweet taste, or fruit, or sugar. Pepper, tomato, and celery are flavoring drinks, and more savory herbs like cilantro, rosemary, and sage. Pepper-infused vodka is very popular, whether mild or spicy.”
Stewart’s new book includes more than 50 drink recipes, such as simple syrups made from prickly pears, figs, or garden flowers, or herbs; pomegranate grenadine; and a Valencia cocktail, made with apricot liqueur, fresh orange juice, orange bitters, and orange peel.
Gardeners will find growing tips, too, for berries, vines, fruits, and vegetables, in case you’d like to try muddling strawberries and mint in rum; garnishing your beverages with basil leaves or lavender sprigs; or preserving sour cherries with brandy or bourbon.
“I’ve always found horticulture to be an agreeably intoxicating subject,” Stewart writes in her book. “I hope you will, too. Cheers!”
Author image: Scott Brown. Book image: Algonquin Books.