Booze and Botany – Yes, They Do Mix

Amy Stewart talks about chic celery, cool gherkins, and illicit Cuban mint

Amy Stewart is neither a drunk nor a botanist, but she has written a book that combines both elements. The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks is more than a dry history of liquor’s origins. It spirits readers away with anecdotes, recipes, hard science, and strange tales.

With each of her books, the award-winning Stewart has followed her diverse and earthy passions, from diabolical insects to the vagaries of the flower trade. For Wicked Plants (2009), she cultivated a “poison garden” of mandrake, hemlock, and other potential killers. She has since replaced it with less deadly plants like elderflower, black currant, and thyme — all the better to make cocktails and inspire her latest project.

When not busy writing, shaking, or stirring, Stewart runs an antiquarian bookstore in Eureka with her husband. She has presented at the Natural History Museum’s First Fridays and at last year’s Tales of the Cocktail, but on Monday, March 25 she’ll be speaking at Vroman’s.

Did you study botany? Did you grow up with gardens?
None of the above. I planted my first garden when I moved from Texas to Santa Cruz in my 20s. My first book [From the Ground Up: The Story of A First Garden] was a memoir about it. I approach these books as a writer first. I call people, interview them, read scholarly journals, and ask, “Am I understanding this right?”

Which liquor’s origins would surprise people?
Agave has a really interesting story. This is a plant that native people were using to make alcohol – pulque — before Europeans arrived. Clearly native people already had a method of roasting the heart of the agave before Europeans got here. That’s how you make tequila, unlike pulque where the sap is extracted. There are some archaeologists who think native people were already distilling before the arrival of Europeans. It wasn’t just Europeans handing out the technology.

The history of all of those herbal liqueurs you across Europe — Chartreuse is one — is so tied in with the history of medicine. We didn’t have a way to do distillation before 800 A.D. The ability to take plants that were medicine, extract the active ingredients and put them in a bottle on a shelf, that was huge. Many of these medicinal things are still in [the liquor]. We’ve just added sugar.

In the book, you profile Joseph Dombey, who was responsible for giving us lemon verbena. He sounds like the unluckiest botanist ever.
The history of plant exploration is one tragedy after another, but he was unusually unlucky. So much of his work got left in a custom house or confiscated by the government, and he had the misfortune of always working for the wrong people. The government would change hands or there would be a shipwreck or a cholera outbreak. I didn’t even tell the whole story.

Tell me about your “poison plant garden,” which was named one of Popular Mechanics’ 18 Strangest Gardens.
The garden no longer exists. For several years I was writing a book about poisonous plants. It’s strange to write about something you’ve never seen or had contact with. These are plants you can’t get at a garden center. The most interesting plants were annuals and had to be started every year from seed. I travel so much I couldn’t keep it up. Meanwhile, I was writing the Drunken Botanist and sticking these herbs that I’m using in drinks right next to poison hemlock. I know the difference between these two, but what if I have a houseguest who doesn’t?

What’s in your cocktail garden?
A lot of herbs: mint, basil, cilantro, thyme. Pretty much all the herbs you use in cooking you also use in cocktails. I have raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, and black currants, which are used in crème de cassis.

You don’t see black currant often.
It was banned in the U.S. for most of the 20th century because it transmitted white pine blister rust. It has to leave pine trees and go to black currant or a similar species. The ban was eventually lifted because they realized the disease was hard to transmit and they developed more resistant varieties of currant. Some states on the East Coast still ban it.

Anything unusual in your garden?
There’s elderflower and red venture celery, a strain I fell in love with. It has thin, little stalks the size of a pencil. They look cool in drinks.

I’m growing sloe to make sloe gin. It’s been three years, and I have no idea how long it will take. Sloes are slow. The nursery I bought it from only grows about 20 of them a year because no one wants it. I, of course, intend to change that.

What’s the coolest thing in your garden?
I’m growing Mexican sour gherkin cucumbers. They’re about the size of an olive and they’re green with little white markings that make them look like miniature watermelons. They’re freakishly easy to grow. They’re crazy cool because nobody’s ever seen them before.

Growing anything else you’re excited about?
Mojito mint. It’s a spearmint from Cuba. It only made its way into nurseries because tourists pulled sprigs of mint out of their mojitos in Cuba and brought them here. It is now available in the U.S. and Canada. Regular spearmint has that Wrigley’s gum flavor. This is more herbaceous and has a wilder, greener, more floral characteristic to it.

As someone who has studied insects and booze, what is the greatest romance between bug and plant?
There are a lot of them related to booze. I think the most interesting one is how bugs are a transportation device for yeast. How does the yeast [in alcohol] get there? It jumps on a bug, which is a little taxicab for yeast. Bugs are usually going to where the food is. Belgian brewers make Lambic in these big, open tubs of mash. If bugs fall in, that’s part of the experience.

You are Tin House’s first writer-in-residence? How did that happen?
I got a call out of the blue. They had a partnership with Portland State University to bring someone into town so I spent 10 weeks teaching there.

What’s the difference between curating a bookstore and a garden?
We primarily sell used and rare books, so we can only sell a book if someone wants to sell it to us. In a garden, you can grow whatever you want.

What’s your favorite happy hour elixir?
Lately, I’ve been drinking a lot of Lillet and vermouths. There are so many vermouths worth drinking on their own. I particularly love Imbue, which is made in Portland. So many of these aromatized and fortified wines like Punt e Mes and Cocchi Americano are all pretty good together. You have to keep them in the fridge and drink them right away because they’ll only last for a month or so. In my fridge there are usually 4 or 5 bottles like that. I pull out a couple at random that I think we should all be drinking more of — and they all taste amazing.