Exploring the plants that make those drinks we love

One of the ways to get into the soul of a country is to get drunk on the local liquor (which is also a good way to get into the cells of a local country, but we digress).  

But how did the greatest spirits of this world first come into being? Amy Stewart pondered this very question and came up with the spectacularly fun book The Drunken Botanist, which traces the odd, unusual and surprisingly common plants responsible for lost nights and delicious devilries under the midnight moon. 

Amy is visiting Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink on Saturday, 13 April from 6pm for a special happy hour event to celebrate the book’s release. Weekender caught up with the author for more details. 

 

What inspired the concept in the first place? 

Believe it or not, this book was born over drinks. I was sitting with my friend Scott Calhoun, a writer and agave expert from Tucson. Someone had given him a bottle of Aviation gin and he said, “Yeah, I’m not much of a gin drinker.  

I don’t know what to do with this.” Well, I knew what to do with it! I made him a variation on a gin and tonic that involves jalapenos, cilantro, and cucumber. As we drank, I kept talking about how anyone who is interested in plants should be excited about gin, because it has so many interesting plants in it. And really, that’s true of every bottle behind the bar. Tequila comes from agave. Rum from sugarcane. Bourbon from corn, and so on. At some point that night, I said, “Somebody should write a book about that!” So I did. 

 

This is really a history of humans isn’t it? 

Definitely. The plants by themselves are just plants, you know — they’re just green things growing out of the ground. From a storytelling perspective, there’s not much you can do with that. It’s only when people come along and try to do something with those plants that things get interesting.  

For instance, some of the herbs in European liqueurs got their start as medicine. Soaking plants in alcohol was a way to extract the active ingredients and make a medicine that could sit on the shelf. But most of them didn’t taste very good, so it quickly became clear that you could add a little sugar and people would drink it. Fast forward a few hundred years, and people are pouring those concoctions into their brandy, and pretty soon the modern cocktail is born. 

 

What was the most surprising discovery about the book? 

I was really surprised and interested in the plants that are so commonly made into alcohol in other parts of the world that we don’t even think about. I wanted this to be a very global book, so I paid attention to Africa, India, Asia, South America — places we don’t consider as much when we think about drinking. So you’ll see plants like the cashew tree, the date palm, the monkey puzzle tree — really strange and wonderful creatures.  

 

What’s your own favourite concoction/drink/cocktail? 

I couldn’t choose just one. The European herbal liqueurs are really interesting to me. Licore Strega has become a regular at my house—that’s a yellow Italian liqueur that is sweet and warm and spicy all at once. And I love aperitif wines like Lillet, which is a blend of wine, citrus, spices and herbs, with a little extra alcohol added.  

I’ve also fallen in love with really good vermouths, which are very drinkable on their own. Out here on the West Coast we have Imbue from Portland, and Vya from California, both of which are fine vermouths meant to be sipped and enjoyed. Sometimes I go into a bar and order a perfect vermouth cocktail, equal parts sweet and dry, and the bartender says, “You want what? Are you sure?” I tell them, “Try it!” 

 

Why are people so keen to create alcohol? What role has it played in society’s development? 

Believe it or not, alcohol has been important to people’s health in a lot of ways. Early versions of wine and beer would have been low in alcohol and quite safe to drink compared with water, which could have been contaminated with parasites and bacteria before modern water treatment plants. And higher-proof spirits, which didn’t come along until about 800 AD when the technology of distillation was better understood, could be used to make medicines or even used as a disinfectant.  

Of course, it hasn’t been all good. Europeans brought sugarcane to the Caribbean, and with the sugarcane plantations came slavery and a really brutal chapter in our history. Just like any other story of our civilization, there’s been a lot of good and many advancements that have made our lives better, but we see our darker side in the story of alcohol as well: greed, corruption, and cruelty. 

 

What are you going to be drinking in Cayman and on which beach? 

You tell me! It’s my first visit, so I’m hoping for some advice from the locals! 

 

Anything else? 

I hope people will come away from this book with an appreciation for good drinks made from really fine ingredients. One thing that’s happened for me as a result of writing this book is that I’ve become a much more picky drinker. I want everything to be fresh and free of artificial flavours and sweeteners.  

Sometimes at a bar I’ll be watching the bartender make my drink and out comes the bottle of cheap artificial cocktail syrup, like a sour mix or something like that. I’ll say, “Put that down and just use a sugar cube and a squeeze of lime!” You should be able to actually taste the plants in the drink! So many of these spirits are so well-made, and so affordably priced, that there’s no reason to accept a cheap substitute. If you come to my talk, I will tell you about how maraschino cherries are made and what a real maraschino cherry is like and you’ll never want the fake stuff again. 

At the event you can sample Amy’s signature concoctions while she shares tips on growing your own cocktail garden. The Camana Bay landscaping team will also be on hand to share their expansive local knowledge. 

 

The event takes place at Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink on Saturday, 13 April from 6pm. 

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