Amy Stewart is a New York Times bestselling author, public speaker and winner of the National Endowment of the Arts for her work on the field of Botany. She owns the expansive Eureka Book Store in Eureka, California.
One of Amy Stewart’s greatest successes is the fascinating book, The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create The Worlds Great Drinks (2013), It’s a collection of ‘biology, chemistry, history, etymology, and mixology–with more than fifty drink recipes and growing tips for gardeners’.
“We all know grapes are used to make wine. But how?” – Amy Stewart
Recently, Amy Stewart gave a Skype interview to the Vancouver Bartenders Book Club, led by group founder Jason Laidlaw (Terminal City Cocktail Classic) and forager/bartender Dylan Williams (Bambudda).
What is something about the book that many people may not know?
“The thing about Drunken Botanist is that it couldn’t be more than 400-pages long. That was as long as I could get away with. So I went down a lot of blind alleys of research that didn’t make it into the book. I’d spent six weeks, at one point, on the Agave chapter and I realized…
“This could be the rest of my life” – Amy Stewart
“The book was going to take 20 years to write at that pace. So there was a lot of really interesting history stuff left out. Imagine, for example, how weird an agave plant would’ve looked to Europeans. So I had to cut a lot of that.”
“There’s a lot of origin stories to liqueurs that sound like myths to me. ‘Our recipe was created by Napoleon’s footman. He carried it with him through the War of 1812, until he was imprisoned with so-and-so’s pharmacist’. They all just sound so absurd. I went a long way down the road of debunking some of those stories but it was weeks and weeks of research. So I was like, I’ve got to stop before this makes me crazy. At some point it all becomes repetitious.
“There were a lot of more obscure fruits and plants that I wanted to write about. But here’s the thing. Every fruit on the planet can be fermented, and has been.” – Amy Stewart
“I had to find the plants with the best stories of how they got to be used, and why? From a taxonomy scale, what other plants were they related to? I felt that was where I could fill in the missing link. Take Kümmel liqueur, for instance. which is made with coriander, caraway and cumin. They are all very closely related to one another. So when you know that all three are in the carrot family (Apiaceae) you understand how they could make complementary compounds.
Drunken Botanist was recently translated into Chinese. Any consideration for exploring the Chinese apothecary world?
“I knew that whether I set out to, or not, I was going to be writing for a primarily North American audience. I focused on the plants you would meet in a well-stocked bar in North America, or Europe. Everywhere else has a really interesting cornucopia of plants at their disposal, too. There’s a huge amount that could be done in-depth in China. I’m also very interested in drinking traditions in Africa. I think that we tend to forget about Africa when we think about booze in a global way. Especially when you consider population, Africa and India would be great to explore. Somebody needs to tackle that.”
“I’ve always tried to stay away from the topic of medicinal plants” – Amy Stewart
Other people have covered the topic of medicinal botany really well. When I wrote, Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities, I wrote primarily about poisonous plants. The line between medicine and poison is very thin. In Drunken Botanist, there are plants that we use today that got their start in medicine, so it comes up. But I had to cover a topic that I could persuade a publisher hadn’t been done before. And again, there’s a lot of myths and frankly, bullshit, out there about medicinal plants. I’m nervous about making unsubstantiated claims.
What was it like to find an intersection between the obsessive worlds of botany and bartending?
“It was weird and interesting, haha. What’s weird about it is that bartenders are like the cool kids. In botany, I’d been hanging out with a lot of really uncool people. In bartending, craft cocktails and even craft distilling – everybody is very hip. It gets a little clique-y to be honest, which is a little intimidating. I walk into Tales of the Cocktail, for instance, and there’s a lot of fish-net stockings and high heels. I’m not a woman who has ever moved through the world in that way. You don’t see a lot of that at the Master Gardner Annual Conference (Link for tickets)
“I was posting pictures from TOTC on Facebook and my friends were, like, ‘Where the hell are you?'”
Before I wrote Drunken Botanist, I was aware of the passion of bartenders and I knew they were talking about the plants and botanical – but without the benefit of hard botanical knowledge.
“A lot of bartender presentations I saw, they pulled a bit of stuff from Wikipedia. A lot of wrong stuff” – Amy Stewart
I saw plant names spelled wrong. I saw gentian being called a cornflower, which is not true. So I thought, I got to clean this up. I saw that no one was looking at it from the perspective of the plants. I thought, let’s not talk about Bourbon – lets talk about corn. Let’s talk about cereal grains. Let’s do this as plants, not as the finished spirit.
I wanted to form a bridge. I knew that there’s a whole bunch of botanists into certain plants and they have no idea that there’s a whole world out there that are dying to know more about it. It was awesome to be able to go to Dr. Lena Struwe, the foremost expert on Gentian and ask her to tell her story. Time and again, I was able to go to botanists who don’t tend to get outside of their own world. They were amazed to find out a group as cool as bartenders were interested in the work that they are doing.
What was the “Aha” moment in the Drunken Botanist?
I was sitting with a friend in Portland, at a Horticulture writer conference. He had a bottle of Aviation Gin that he’d received as a gift. He didn’t want it because he didn’t like gin. I said, let me make you a drink that will turn you into a gin lover. My question for him, ‘How can you be so into plants and not find gin fascinating?’. Look at all the botanical diversity in gin and all the places those ingredients come from in the world. I went on a bit of a rant, haha. But I said, ‘You know there’s nothing but liquified plants in this bottle?’.
I turned to the bar. ‘That’s true for all of these bottles. Look, there’s corn, agave, wheat and grapes’. I sort of, went off on the topic.
Pretty soon I was like, somebody ought to write a book about this. It basically started on the back of a cocktail napkin. Sometimes we have piles of notes on different topics and when it’s time to write a new book we show our agent the notes and try to find a good idea. In this case, I came in straight away with the idea after a bottle of gin.
How did you go from Drunken Botanist to your new book, Girl Waits With Gun (2015)?
I was actually working on Drunken Botanist, and I was researching a gin smuggler, named Henry Kaufman, and stumbled on the story. I was trying to find out as much as I could about this historical bootlegger. I found a newspaper article from 1915, about Henry Kaufman that said he harassed and attacked three women. They fought back in an interesting way. As I researched their story I got obsessed with them. I ended up writing about the true story of these three women fighting against this gin smuggler gangster that was going up against them.
What are you drinking these days?
Are you going to write more about drunken botany?
I don’t know if I’ll get to do it. There’s a lot of good topics yet to be covered in the world of cocktail gardening. I’m encouraging others to do it. It’s mostly for home enthusiasts because there’s a lot of serious factors to consider if you are trying to get commercial level production out of it for a busy bar. I’ve continued to collect information and images, but that’s as far as it has gone.
“It could be a really interesting business for someone to go around and install bar gardens.” – Amy Stewart
If there was a revised edition of Drunken Botanist are there any plants that you’d add?
“There were a few Caribbean spices that just missed the cut. There are some South American tree barks that could be looked at more closely. Some are quite medicinal, so you’d really have to know what you’re doing before you plunk them in alcohol. I wrote a whole book about poisons and all the ways people could die, so I’m a little paranoid about the adverse effects of using ingredients you don’t understand.
What caution should a home bartender remember when using plants in alcohol?
“Plants do not exist to serve us.” – Amy Stewart
“There wonderful flavors that plants create. They do that for a reason that serves them. Such as, luring a pollinator or repelling insects. Rosemary smells really strong to keep bugs away, it just happens to be a smell we like.”
“Plants are chemical factories. The most absurd thing you could believe is that because plants are ‘all-natural’ they all have useful chemicals for humans. Plants make cyanide. Plants make strychnine. Plants make ricin. All 100% natural plant-derived ingredients that will kill you. Alcohol is a solvent. It will extract all the alcohol soluble molecules that it can get in a prude and indiscriminate way. It takes everything.”
“A few years ago, a bartender showed up a TOTC with hemlock. They wanted to make hemlock bitters. They didn’t know that hemlock is what killed Socrates! It’s highly poisonous.”
“I worry about the wild foraging movement as it works its way into the cocktail movement. You really need to know what you’re picking and how much you are using. Take the trend a few years ago of Tobacco infusions. You are serving your guests an unknown dose of nicotine. What if a guest has a heart condition?”
“Plants have incredible power and we need to respect it.”
Trinidad Shandy, by Dylan Williams
Inspired by the section on Mauby, in The Drunken Botanist.