Thursday, April 18, 2013

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Bookshelf: The Drunken Botanist (and a giveaway)

“Do you know of this?” my friend EJ emailed. “I just stumbled upon it and think I am going to pick one up.” The link in his note was for Amy Stewart’s new book The Drunken Botanist. Within seconds I typed back: “Buy it immediately.”

Scroll down for a chance to score a free copy
The last decade has witnessed an avalanche of drinks books: encyclopedic cocktail guides; histories of various liquors; reproductions of early bartending manuals; buying guides; essay collections; paeans to bars from New Orleans to Wisconsin. Most are undistinguished. Many cocktail manuals in particular are interchangeable. Some released only in the last few years have begun to feel like remnants of trends not yet played out, already dated. Not Stewart’s.

The Drunken Botanist is the most useful and entertaining drinks book of the year and one of the most engaging of the last several years.

I've been to liquor stores with distillers, bartenders, and go-go boys but never a botanist. Until I manage that, this little green tome can serve as a crash course in what's actually in those thousands of bottles. Sure, cocktail recipes — good ones, too — are scattered throughout the book but those are not the reason I've been heaping plaudits on it. Rather, it's the unrelenting thoroughness of Stewart's writing that's so impressive. The book is an exploration of plants (and a few bugs and fungi) that contribute flavors, aromas, colors, tactile sensations, and base materials for fermentation and distillation.

Stewart frames the scope in her introduction:
Around the world, it seems, there's not a tree or shrub or delicate wildflower that has not been harvested, brewed, and bottled. Every advance and botanical exploration or horticultural science brought with it a corresponding uptick in the quality of our spirituous liquors. Drunken botanists? Given the role they play in creating the world's greatest drinks, it's a wonder there are any sober botanists at all.
Bartenders beware.
Since Caesar famously divided Gaul into three, authors have followed suit. Stewart breaks down over 150 plants we drink into three sections. First come plants that, when fermented (and sometimes distilled) yield beer, wine, ales, and various spirits. These include obvious selections like corn, apples, grapes, sugarcane, wheat, and barley as well as fermentable bases less often seen in the North America or western Europe such as tamarind, sweet potato, jackfruit, banana, and marula. Next are those used to flavor those spirits and low-alcohol brews: coriander, anise, meadowsweet, hyssop, wormword, fenugreek, vanilla, cinnamon, elderflowers, saffron, Douglas fir, oak, mastic, and dozens more. Finally, flowers, berries, herbs, and others added a la minute to drinks — think celery stalks in a bloody mary, cucumber in a Pimm's cup, and tiki drinks garnished with endless pineapple, mint, and cherries. They are all here, each backed up with horticultural, chemical, medical, historical, anthropological, and ethnnobotanical research.

The Drunken Botanist covers much of the same ground Brad Thomas Parsons reached for in his Bitters, but where Parsons stumbled, Stewart soars. Her graceful, easy style belies the sheer amount of facts and data packed into nearly 400 pages. Line drawings accompany many of the entries. Each plant entry starts with the common name immediately followed by its Linnean taxonomic designation and the family to which it belongs and then a page or more on its use in alcoholic drinks.

Take myrrh, for instance. Commiphora myrrha to botanists, it's in the torchwood family, more properly known as Burseraceae. Wait. WAIT. Do not let your eyes glaze over. Myrrh was one of the gifts of the biblical wise men. If Jesus was down with myrrh, you can give it a minute. Stewart writes:
Myrrh is an ugly little tree: scrawny, covered in thorns, and nearly bereft of leaves. It grows in the poor, shallow soils of Somalia and Ethiopia, where it is a gloomy gray figure in a barren landscape. If it weren't for the rich and fragrant resin that drips from the trunk, no one would give it a second look.
The rest of the entry concerns its use among ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, including the Roman practice of blending it with wine to offer during crucifixions. Well, ok, maybe Jesus wasn't always a fan. We learn that in modern times it is a common ingredient in vermouth, bitters, aromatized wines, and cordials such as Royal Combier and that bartenders' favorite, Fernet Branca. The Fernet mention leads us to a discussion of aloe (also found in Fernet Branca), which is related to agave, and that brings us to tequila, and from there to Damiana whose supposed aphrodisiac qualities led one doctor to write in 1879 that it could be given to female patients "to produce in her the very important yet not absolutely essential orgasm." On and on they go, these analog hyperlinks, each entry suggesting another, like a Choose Your Own Adventure book for drinkers.

Boozehounds, brewers, distillers, oenologists, sommeliers, bitters-makers, bartenders — even tea freaks and soda makers — will find this a timeless reference work for understanding not only what's in the spirits we drink, but perhaps ways to craft new ones. Her engaging prose and attention to detail all but assures that Stewart's latest book will remain a useful tool even a century from now for those who make drinks at home or work.

Amy Stewart (2013)
The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the World’s Great Drinks 
400 pages (hardback)
Algonquin Books
ISBN: 1616200464

Goes well with:
  • My review of C. Anne Wilson's Water of Life, an exhaustive examination of the origins and progress of spiritous distillation. 
  • A look at Brad Thomas Parsons' Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas. A qualified success, but still worth buying. 
  • Volodimir Pavliuchuk's 2008 recipe book Cordial Waters: A Compleat Guide to Ardent Spirits of the World. 
  • Do It to Julia! A look at pink cloves and gin as Winston Smith's habitual (I'll refrain from calling it his "favorite") tipple in Orwell's 1984.

How About That Free Copy?

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, the publisher of  The Drunken Botanist, has offered to send a free copy of the book to five Whiskey Forge readers. There are only two rules: (1) winners must have a US or Canadian mailing address and (2) readers must leave a recipe in the comments below to qualify.

A recipe? What? Hell, yes. I want to read about your favorite alcoholic drink that relies on plants to give it some distinguishing character — a cocktail, a homemade cordial or bitters recipe, your grandmother's amaro or your college roommate's homemade absinthe. Whatever. But it's got to have booze, beer, or wine (nothing against tea, but tea hardly makes botanists drunk) and it's got to demonstrate some distinctive plant characteristic. What that means is up to you: I want to see what you've got.

Next Friday (April 26th), I'll post the names of five randomly chosen winners here.  Each will have until Friday, May 3rd to email me a shipping address.

NOTE: The giveaway is now closed and the winners (plus their recipes) are announced here. The comments, however, are still open. Please feel free to chime in with your own recipes. [edit 27 April 2013]


Scott Spolverino said...

Easy peasy. A riff on the Toronto I created:

2 oz. Ron Zacapa 23 year old
1/4 oz. Fernet Branca
1/4 oz. simple syrup (1:1)
Orange peel garnish.

Stir on ice, strain, serve up in a chilled glass with an orange peel.

The woodiness of the 23 year old rum pairs wonderfully with the herbaceous Fernet. For using rum, it's pretty dry. And the orange ties it all together nicely with a zest (pun...intended, I guess). I call it...

"The Great Northern Guatemalan"

Adam K. said...

I just can't get enough of ginger in cocktails. This cocktail, a minor variation on a Kentucky Buck, has it two ways (neither of which are Domaine de Canton!)

2oz bourbon or rye
3/4oz lemon juice
1/2oz ginger simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Ginger beer

Shake bourbon, syrup, lemon, and bitters with ice. Pour into a collins glass and top with ginger beer. (I like a little stir, as well.) You can garnish with lemon if you're into that sort of thing.

_ said...

I've never bothered to make up a name for this. It's not so much a cocktail as... an odd personal practice.

Take a good-sized handful of very fresh tulsi basil (ocimum tenuiflorum) and rip it up into small pieces. Put them in a small glass and cover and a little more with a decent vodka or very neutral spirit. Cover the glass well with a dish and leave in a dark cool place for a few days. Rap the glass with a spoon every once in a while to jiggle the herb. Strain and chill well. Put in enough good water to let the scent of the basil come in front of the ethyl and add just a bit of real rosewater, and swirl.

Drink slowly on a very hot evening.

Unknown said...

Doing a nice Martinez these days

1 1/2 oz Ransom Old Tom Gin
3/4 oz Carpano
1/4 oz Luxardo
2 dashes of Reagan Orange bitters
Luxardo Cherry and orange twist

the Ransom has a nice cardamom note not in found in dry gins
smooth and with a spicey overtone....

It's a lighter version of a Manhatten for your friends who are spooked by rye....why that would be, I do not know.

I've seen the book, its super...I'd lover my own copy

Andy said...

Elderflowers are (were) popping out in Oregon last week. I've taken to infusing them into apple cider as the base for elder flower vinegar, but if you pull off a bit of that pre-vinegar you can make some yummy cocktails.

1 oz Laird's Bonded Applebrandy
1 oz Banknote Scotch (or other reasonable blended scotch)
1/2 oz real maple syrup
3 oz dry-ish hard cider

Stir together with ice, strain into a glass with some ice.

Arok said...

With no chamomile flowers or mint leaves, this wouldn't have much character at all

1.5 oz Chamomile infused vodka
.75 oz lemon juice
.5 oz honey
Mint sprig(s)

Muddle mint in shaker, fill half full of ice, add ingredients, shake 10 seconds or so, strain into an up glass, run a bead of honey around the edge and garnish with another mint sprig.

MJ said...

I very much enjoy the Juliet and Romeo created by the folks at the Violet Hour in Chicago.

My contribution is to peel the cucumbers.

* Muddle 3 peeled cuc slices and some mint with a small pinch of salt
* 2 oz gin
* 3/4 oz simple syrup
* 3/4 oz lime juice
* 3 drops rose water
* 3 drops angostura bitters
Shake and strain
Clap some mint over the top and drop 3 more drops of bitters.


Sylvan said...

This is my variation on Sam Ross' wonderful 'cold Scotch toddy'. I never have 'ginger-honey syrup' so I usually make honey syrup to order (no need to let it cool) and muddle fresh ginger.

Penicillin Cocktail
Fresh ginger
2 ounces blended scotch (typ. Famous Grouse or Ballantine)
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
3/4 ounce honey syrup (1:1 honey/water)
1/4 ounce smoky Scotch (such as Laphroaig)

Slice a few (to taste) 1/8" slices of ginger and muddle in a mixing glass. Add blended Scotch, lemon juice and syrup, fill with ice and shake well. Strain into an ice-filled rocks glass or a chilled cocktail glass and float Islay scotch on top.

Lucas said...

In the summertime I make a Caesar with stuff from the garden. I usually just eyeball this.

Homemade vodka infused with Persimmon Tomatoes (using ISI Whipper)
Tomato juice (boughten is fine)
Oyster liquor
dash or two celery bitters
Fresh grated horseradish from the garden.
a couple of drops of homemade chili oil.
Rim the glass with lime and serve with a plate of oysters.

From currently snowy Toronto.

sam k said...

Back to basics with old fashioned Rock & Rye:

750 ml good rye whiskey (I like Bulleit)
3 Tbsp rock candy (or 2 Tbsp honey)
2 orange quarters (with peel)
2 lemon quarters (with peel)
1/8 fresh pineapple, peeled
6 cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
1 Tbsp horehound in cheesecloth bag

Add all ingredients to a wide mouth half-gallon jar and allow to sit in a cool place for a week. Taste and decide whether you want more spice influence. If not, remove spices but leave the whiskey on the fruit.

Drink neat or over ice, and enjoy the oranges and pineapple when the whiskey begins to dip below their level.

The perfect winter tonic!

sam k said...

I'm not double dipping here, I only expect to get one entry, but I wanted to pass along another crowd favorite recipe, this one from the anthracite region of Northeast Pennsylvania.

Boilo is of Lithuanian origin and was recognized as a coal miner's cure-all. There are unlimited variations on the theme (Google it), and they conduct annual Boilo competitions at various ethnic clubs in the region to this day.

Always served warm, it is a soothing companion on a cold winter's night.

4 oranges, peeled
2 lemons, peeled
1 cup honey
4 cups water
1 cup raisins
1/2 tsp cloves
1 Tbsp caraway seed
1 Tbsp anise seed
4 cinnamon sticks
2 750 ml bottles decent blended American whiskey (Four Queens if you can find it)

Take all ingredients except whiskey and bring to a slow simmer for about a half hour. I prefer to peel the citrus to avoid leaching the more bitter oils into the potion. Allow to cool slightly and strain. Add the blended whiskey just before serving.

This will keep for some time. The blended whiskey is the main traditional ingredient here, really, and though I've read that the cheaper it is, the better, that's crap. There really is a substantial difference between, say, Fleischmann's and Four Queens (which has a slightly higher percentage of actual whiskey and is bottled at 100 proof). I know...I've ruined en entire batch by using Fleischmann's.

I suppose you could do even better by using three parts vodka and one part bourbon, but the miners always called for blended, and who am I to argue with tradition? That, plus they'd kick my ass!

sam k said...

P.S. Four Queens only comes in 750s, kind of an anomaly for blended. You can certainly just use a handle of something else to your liking.

JollyInebriate said...

Cynar is my fave! I even like it as a shot in my beer.

Death in the Afternoon

2 oz tromba blanc
.25 oz cynar
.5 oz carpano bianco
.5 oz agave
.5 oz lemon
5 mint leaves

Shaken and double-strained into a coupe glass. Garnish with a clapped mint leaf.

This is such a good aperitif option!

FrankO said...

I've been enjoying these cardamom-based bitters lately in manhattans. It took weeks for the extracts to be made (10 days for one jar, 28 for the other), but once they were done and I combined them, it was worth it.

In one 4 oz mason jar, put:

1/2 tsp dried wormwood (or gentian root, whichever)
1/2 tsp green cardamom pods
1/4 tsp mace (or nutmeg)

In a second 4 oz mason jar, put:

1 tsp freshly grated lemon zest
1 tsp freshly grated lime zest
1 dried date, chopped

Then fill each jar with Everclear or a minimum of 100-proof vodka, cap, and put in a cool dark place to sit for a bit. The jar with the fruit should age for 28 days, and the one with the spices & roots should age for 10 days, so time them accordingly so they are done at the same time. Give them a shake every day.

Once they are done, filter out the bits with cheesecloth, combine in a single jar, and enjoy. Store in a cool dark place.

couchot said...

Matt - I've been listening to and finding every smidge of any talk af Amy Stewart since I heard about The Drumken Botanist hitting the shelves. What a conest for a fantastic book!

Recipe submission

Rum Rickey gone Local

1 shot Rhum Agricole
1/2 shot of Louisiana made small batch cane syrup
fresh squeezed lime juice
splash of soada
garnish with a lime twist

The flavors of US sugarcane truly shine in this combination!

greenheel said...

A spicy take on the brown derby:

1.5 oz rye (Knob Creek rye)
1.5 oz of fresh grapefruit juice
.5 oz jalapeno honey (To make: combine 14 oz local NC honey with fresh sliced jalapenos (2) - lightly sautee to release oils. Combine seed and fruit into honey in mason jar; let sit for 5 days prior to use)
.25 oz simple syrup
Splash soda water (or more, depending on tolerance for spice!)
.25 oz grenadine

Add rye and honey. Stir to loosen. Add grapefruit. Shake. Serve with crushed ice in rocks glass OR in chilled champagne coupe.

Nick in Chapel Hill

greenheel said...

Oops, omit grenadine! Typo.

Maria said...

I like a nice chamomile toddy as a nightcap, the thyme keeps it from being too simplistic:

1 oz bourbon
3/4 oz chamomile or pineappleweed liqueur
1/4 oz thyme-infused vodka
dandelion bitters
top off with hot water

Matthew Rowley said...

Scott ~ a solid contribution. The orange is a nice touch.

The Kentucky Buck is well known around these parts. Quite literally, I cannot count the number of cases of ginger beer with gone through making variations of this exact drink: good call.

There's nothing the least bit odd about the basal infusion — except, perhaps, wrapping the glass with a spoon. I might just give the glass shake, but that's because I dislike doing dishes, even something so small as a single spoon.

Bryan ~ I was out at Ransom visiting Tad Seestedt, the distiller, a few months back. You've got a good nose for gin; Tad's Old Tom is one of my favorite non-mainstream craft gins. I will have to give it a shot in a Martinez.

Andy ~ tell us more about your chamomile/apple cider vinegar. That's something I could get into, possibly even using the vinegar itself in some drinks. Even so, just about anything with bonded apple brandy is something I'm going to want to try.

Matthew Rowley said...

Eric ~ This sounds great for summertime. What's your process for the chamomile-infused vodka?

Some folks gripe that the cucumber/gin combination is played out. Those folks are wrong. The Juliet and Romeo is going to get some play around here now that the weather is warming up.

Sylvan ~ One of the things I like about this different scotch whiskey is in the same glass. Early 21st century drinks will have a number of telltale signs in future, but combining multiple whiskeys in a single drink will be one of them. It's not unheard of in earlier cocktail recipes, but I've seen it more in the last three years than in the 40 before that.

Lucas ~ I suspected you were from Canada the moment I read "Caesar." Tell us; what's your process for making the persimmon tomato-infused vodka? This is another technique that one hardly ever saw a few years ago, but now is being used with all kinds of botanicals — even dried beef.

Sam ~ This is a recipe close to my heart. In fact, I have a bottle of Hochstadter's rock and rye on my desk as I type this. I have used hoarhound candy from the Denver confectioners Hammond's for the exact same end. Good call. As for boilo, that is some old-school concoction right there. I haven't seen Four Queens out here in San Diego, but the next time the temperature tips below 60 here, this is what I will be thinking of.

Matthew Rowley said...

JollyInebriate ~ This is quite different from Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon with its champagne and absinthe. That having been said, I'm a big fan of Cynar as well. Hadn't occurred to me to drop a shot into a beer, though. Got any particular favorites?

FrankO ~ Good to see you here. I like your two-part approach to cardamom bitters. A lot of people will just combine everything in one jar for extraction, but more finessed extracts, tinctures, etc. can be made by breaking down the components into an ever-more specific macerations. Cardamom is one of my favorite flavors, but one that I find requires a light touch. I'll give this a shot.

Couchot ~ Hey, buddy. Good to see you here as well! This is nice. Rhum Agricole I can grab from the other room. but any suggestions where someone who isn't smack-dab in the middle of Louisiana cane country can get his hands on a supply of Louisiana-made small batch cane syrup?

Nick ~ before dinner tonight, I'm headed out to pick up enough jalapenos to make a batch of this infused honey. It will be North Carolina honey, but there are some busy bees around here and I'm a sucker for hot/sweet combinations. Duly noted about omitting the grenadine.

Maria ~ I had to look up pineappleweed because I didn't recognize the name. As soon as I saw a photo, I knew exactly what you were talking about. I like the idea of this toddy as a nightcap, but tell us; what is your recipe for the liqueur?

Anonymous said...

I always end the night with one of these:


.75oz Green Chartreuse
.75oz Luxardo Maraschino
.75oz Fernet Branca
.75oz Fresh Lime Juice

Shake/Strain/Serve Up.

Matthew Rowley said...

John ~

That is a big, bold drink. I just ran through the numbers in my head and realized I could have one of these in my hand in about 4 minutes. This might be the way I kill the work day today. Cheers!

JollyInebriate said...

I love it in a wheat beer. Unibroue's La Fin du Monde is nice with the spicy notes. Also good in Belgian ales and saisons.

Matthew Rowley said...

Nice; I'm down with that. For as much variety in brands and styles of beer–even local breweries–I drink a lot of wheat beer. And, come this weekend, it looks like I'll start hacking it into an amaro boilermaker.

Anonymous said...


Its definitely my favorite "Last Word" variation. Its kind of a crappy color, by the flavors are just perfection. Im a Fernet loyal, so I love the added herbal and floral notes. Give it a try and let me know what you think. Everyone Ive made it for has loved it.

sam k said...

Matthew, the Hochstadter's was a welcome sight in my local last year. A solid commercial contender for the first time ever! (All we had before that was Jacquin's, 54 proof).

This one is less sweet than the Hochstadter's and uses dried horehound...I like your thought of combining the sweet and savory by using horehound candy, maybe dropping the rock candy altogether. I change it up a bit each year.

Used to use Wild Turkey rye, but I like the minty/herbal notes of the Bulleit better for this.

Speaking of Hammond's (and your penchant for marshmallow) how about those Mitchell Sweets? Yowzah!

Lucas said...

I learned the technique on the cooking issues blog.
I do a rough dice with the tomato, making sure to add the juice to the whipper as well. Seal it up, pressurize with two cartridges, wait a minute, depressurize and strain. I like the persimmon tomatoes because they have tons of flavour and live about ten steps away from the bar.

couchot said...

For those outside cane country, substitute real maple sryup or a small touch of golden molasses.

Unknown said...

Garden Marini

45ml Pincer Botanical Vodka
25ml Hendricks Gin
15ml lime juice
Dash elderflower cordial ( v important to get the balance correct, if martini to sour add some more)
½ Rosemary sprig
5 basil leaves
2 lime wedges

Muddle lime, basil and rosemary
Add Pincer & Gin, elderflower cordial and lime juice
Shake and double strain into chilled martini glass
Garnish with bay leaf

Sylvan said...

I clicked thru Maria's link to her blog, which I found interesting, and here is the link to her recipe with linked details on the bitters and the pineapple weed liqueur

I figured anyone with 3 custom botanical ingredients had either a booze or wildcrafting blog.

Greg Gearheart said...


2 oz. Stolichnaya wodeka
I meyers lemon, squeezed
6 oz. tonic water
2 sprigs fresh mint
1 squizzle stick*

*frozen squid, intact minus ink.

Mix liquids, add mint and stir with squizzle stick, eyeballs down. Try to drink it before the whole squid melts and starts to dissolve.

Matthew Rowley said...

Sam ~ Those Mitchell Sweets are everywhere! I admit, however, my tastes for soft candy qua candy is limited; I'll use the stuff as ingredients, but to sit down and eat a handful of soft candy is a prospect of little joy.

Lucas ~ Me gusta. William Woys Weaver wrote some years back about using tomato water (just slicing a load of flavorful tomatoes and letting gravity strain the released juices through cheesecloth). I liked the idea then for light drinks but I like yours for something else entirely. I'm already eyeing a batch of mint and a bottle of NGS for a creme de menthe experiment.

John ~ Copy that. Cane syrup is one of the things I always bring back from Louisiana (along with proper andouille from LaPlace). I used the last little bit of Steens in some ginger cookies. One more reason to stock up again.

Sylvan ~ Good eye. Both of you may like John Wright's column in The Guardian; nothing new since last summer, but here's what there is: Homebrew from the Hedgerow.

Greg ~ it's... I knew exactly what you meant when you wrote "squizzle stick" but I'm not at all certain you're serious. My leg feels pulled and my chain jerked. May I refer you to Marinetti's "Manifesto of Futurist Cooking" and Myhrvold's Modernist Cuisine

Maria said...

Lolz @ Sylvan! If only I had a bit more blogging oomph & focus I'd make it specifically a wildcrafted booze blog.

I've also had really great results with adding lemon balm to the liqueur. I sometimes remember to record the formulation for a batch, but "recipe" is really an overly generous term - it changes year to year depending on what I find while scouting for ingredients.

Unknown said...

Thimbleberry Smash
A refreshing Smash type cocktail

By Christopher Carlsson of Spirits Review

3 oz Whiskey ( Rye Preferred)
2 oz St Germain Liqueur
1 oz Solerno
1 Cup Thimbleberries
8 oz Fever Tree Club Soda
2 Sprigs of Fresh Mint
Muddle one sprig of mint and thimbleberries in Tall Glass,
Build over ice .
Garnish with Sprig of mint.
Serve with straw

Anonymous said...

blackberry mint julep

3 oz Whiskey ( Rye Preferred)
2 oz St Germain Liqueur
1 oz Solerno
1 Cup Thimbleberries
8 oz Fever Tree Club Soda
2 Sprigs of Fresh Mint
Muddle one sprig of mint and thimbleberries in Tall Glass,
Build over ice .
Garnish with Sprig of mint.
Serve with straw