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It all Starts with Plants

It’s easy to forget that everything we drink behind the bar comes from, well, plants.

Spirits, liqueurs, wines, beers, and most mixers originate as fruit, grain or botanicals that are mashed, cooked, fermented, distilled, infused or juiced and pieced back together into the thousands of beverages we commonly use behind the bar.

Amy Stewart is an author specializing in horticulture (i.e.: plants) and wrote The Drunken Botanist to tell the story of the “the plants that create the world’s great drinks”. The book brings a new perspective to the alchemy of spirits, discussing not just the types of plants and botanicals used, but how they are used and how those processes result in the final taste. One might say she takes the ingredients of the bar back to their “roots.”

… As a Reference

The book is organized in an encyclopedic style – which I appreciated. It’s arranged in three main parts, starting with the plants that create alcohol bases (think: agave, potatoes, wheat), continuing with those typically infused for flavor (from flowers to seeds, nuts, berries and more) and concluding with a section devoted to trips & tricks for the average Mixologist to attempt to grow their own cocktail ingredients.

Starting with Plants

Stewart’s overview of the various plants distilled into liquors is truly comprehensive. As an example, the first plant featured is Agave – and over 15 pages, Stewart discusses the history of its use in alcoholic beverages, how Mezcal and Tequila are made, a few anecdotal stories about the spirit, a recipe for the classic Margarita, and (in case you’re confused) a brief reminder that Mezcal is not the same thing as Mescaline. This one section is a great example of both the depth and breath of the topic that Stewart covers – taking the time to talk deeply about the topic but including the fun side-notes that keep the story interesting.

It’s only fair to also note – Stewart covers far beyond the common plants we’d normally think about when considering liquor bases. When I opened to a random page in section one I was presented with Savannah Bamboo and the Strawberry Tree – neither of which I’d ever heard of, let alone knew were used in the creation of distilled drinks.

… Continuing with Flavor

In part II, Stewart takes a moment to point out the various other plants used after distillation is complete. If you recall, Chris’ favorite liqueur is Green Chartreuse, wihch uses no less than 130 botanicals in their exclusive and secret formula. Thankfully Stewart doesn’t try to cover them all, but rather focuses on the “herbs, spices, fruits, nuts, bark, roots and flowers” that you are most likely to find on your back-bar.

This section is, again, organized conveniently as a reference. It’s divided up by the types of botanicals – from herbs and spices to flowers, then trees, fruit, and concluding with Nuts & Seeds. I know Chris spent a great deal of time with his nose in this section while working on creating his flavor library and homemade bitters – and for good reason. Each weird ingredient he found at the spice shop was listed here with great detail on how it’s grown, harvested, and most importantly – the flavors it imparts when infused in spirit.

Concluding in the Garden

I’ll be honest – this section was less interesting to me. But that’s not due to Stewart’s writing or topic – just to the fact that I am incapable of growing absolutely anything. So her chapter giving tips and instructions for growing plants as cocktail ingredients simply didn’t appeal to me. But for the mixologist who’s hoping to get the best drinks, it’s well known that fresh is best. Thankfully Chris is our resident gardener – and keeps me well supplied with fresh mint!

A Great Read and a Great Reference

I strongly feel that this book deserves (if not MUST have) a couple inches of your bookshelf. While I didn’t personally find it the type of book I’d pick up and read straight through, it is a fantastic (and fascinating) reference book. Chris uses it often when building cocktails and I think any cocktail creator or enthusiast would probably do the same!

Pick up your copy of The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart on Amazon.

Julia Tunstall

Julia Tunstall is the co-founder of A Bar Above and Chief Cocktail Taster. She's in charge of keeping things running smoothly around here, but you'll also find her stopping by on the Mixology Talk Podcast or hanging around the Craft Cocktail Club.