The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart is one of my most dog-eared books. In this book, Stewart covers the history and horticulture of 160 different plants related to the production and consumption of alcohol. She expertly combines scientific fact with cultural whimsey to explain how and why the world’s most popular alcoholic beverages came to be. It’s no surprise this book is a New York Times Bestseller.
The Drunken Botanist starts off with an introduction cleverly titled “Aperitif”. Here, Stewart gives us a quirky narrative that explains her inspiration to compile the forthcoming information, and a quick guide to vocabulary and tools that will be mentioned.
The bulk of the book is divided into 3 parts. Each part is sprinkled with classic & original cocktail recipes, fun facts, historical anecdotes, and field guides on specific species. If you’re a bartender like me, you will have new ideas popping into your head with each page turn. This book is my favorite one to pick up when I need inspiration for an original cocktail.
Part I explores the plants that are used as the main ingredient in alcohol creation. It starts off with the most well-known spirits and the plants used to create them, organized alphabetically. You’ll learn everything from how to identify agave and make it into tequila, to the history of wheat cultivation and how it’s used to make beer, vodka, and whiskey. This section also covers some not-so-familiar plants used to make alcohol around the world, from Ugandan banana beer to tamarind wine from the Philippines. Along the way you’ll learn all about the ways we humans convert the sugars in plants into mind-altering elixirs through the processes of fermentation and distillation.
Part II investigates alcohol creation further with less-common plants used during the fermentation and distillation processes, and the unique liquors they help create from around the world. The plants in Part II are organized into 4 categories: Herbs & Spices (allspice-wormwood) Flowers (chamomile-violet); Trees (angostura-sugar maple); Fruit (apricot-yuzu); and Nuts & Seeds (almond-walnut). Did you know cinnamon is the dried bark of a tree? This section is jam-packed with intriguing flavor profiles that will provide you with a better understanding of cocktail bitters and herbal liquors.
Part III is all about fresh ingredients from the garden that can be used in cocktail creation. Herbs, flowers, trees, berries, vines, fruits, and vegetables are all covered. Here you’ll learn how to build a cocktail, infuse vodka, and start a garden of your own.
Stewart concludes her work with a “Digestif” conclusion, recommended reading for bartenders and gardeners, acknowledgements, and a detailed index for quick reference. The whole book is fun to read start to finish, and like I said before, it will have you coming back again and again to look up interesting ingredients or get inspiration for new cocktails. I highly recommend The Drunken Botanist to any bartender looking to step up their knowledge on the history and making of alcohol, or anyone with even a passing interest in plants, history, and drinking!