Most bar books with cocktail recipes are, um, rather straight up: Just tell me how to make it. What naturalist and garden writer Amy Stewart spins in The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the World's Great Drinks is a bit of history, myth-debunking and gardening woven with some science to produce a read as easy as any summer novel.
It may not be necessary to know that junipers are either male or female and male; or that the pollen of male junipers can travel 100 miles to reach a female shrub; or that the resulting pollinated berries take two or three years to mature. But it makes that martini taste so much better knowing the struggle within.
Stewart methodically breaks down fermentation and distillation from agave to wheat, but with the candor and wit of a good-humored bartender. Stewart notes, for example, that the American white oak tree used for whiskey barrels produces a similar flavor molecule as the vanilla plant, and that Scotch connoisseurs add a splash of water since, in a chemical reaction, the most flavorful molecules "break away" from the alcohol as water is introduced. Thus, the most flavorful portion of the liquor comes forward in the glass.
In addition to science, Stewart offers about 50 recipes, including those for syrups and infusions as well cocktails and garnishes. Some are not actual recipes: The "Perfect Pastis" includes a trip to Paris. While most of the cocktail recipes are classic in nature, the recipe for a Manhattan launches the discussion of the rye comeback, and not only in rye whiskey consumption, but as a component used by the emerging American craft distillers. Square One Vodka, for example, only uses 100 percent organic American rye to produce its vodkas.
Stewart tackles brown beer bottles (better than clear), the worm in the bottle of mezcal and foraging for gentian, a wild French Alpine flower that is the star of Suze French bitters as well as an ingredient in a slew of Italian aperitifs (including Campari, Aperol, and Averna). However you choose to approach The Drunken Botanist, though, Stewart allows one constant: entertainment.
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