It’s Boozy Bookshelf time! Our monthly feature where our friends Marlene and Lucas of Famous Last Words Bar in Toronto review books of a boozy nature. This month, they hit up The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart and give us both of their opinions of said book.
This book starts off with arguably the best table of contents ever published in a bar book (or possibly in any type of book). As an unabashed wordnerd, I adored the forward – it’s an Aperitif, obv – and how it sets the tone for what’s to come. Which is an informative, lighthearted and thoroughly infectious romp for anyone with even a passing interest in the botanicals and their effect and impact on our favourite spirits. Amy Stewart likens the liquor store she visits in the opening to “a fantastical greenhouse, the world’s most exotic botanical garden, the sort of strange and overgrown conservatory we only encounter in our dreams.” Preach.
For those not really into horticulture who may be worried about the density of the subject matter, Stewart has a solution: easily digestible chunks of information organized by the key plants we turn into or use to flavour alcohol. To wit, the opening chapter on agave covers key information about the plant itself as you’d expect, but also includes numerous sidebars on the types of tequila, her preferred margarita recipe and why some people insist on spelling mezcal with an s instead of a z. There are also bits of trivia you can pull out at opportune times, like the fact that “Trou Normand” refers to the glass of Calvados served in the middle of a meal to help make room for the courses to follow.
The structure unfolds more or less logically: part one focuses on the things we most commonly turn into alcohol (grains, fruit, veg, etc), part two on the things we use to flavour that alcohol (herbs, spices, flowers, etc) and part three on the things we add to cocktails (more herbs, flowers, berries, etc) along with some growing tips for the more green-thumbed among us.
Each section is engaging in its own right: distilling aficionados will find much to love in part one, with a reasonable but not overwhelming level of depth on each plant (along with the slightly disconcerting “bugs in booze” sidebar feature which shows up in most chapters). Part two, beginning with herbs and spices is chock full of information about plants both mainstream and obscure (hands up: who’s using cubeb, damiana, dittany of Crete, or elecampane in a cocktail?). What may be most helpful is the taxonomy of each one which appears at the top…who knew caraway, coriander and anise are all in the carrot family? As a compliment to The Flavour Bible, this is a great tool for pairing unlikely ingredients. Part three, by far the shortest of the sections, is the most helpful for anyone looking to start a cocktail garden, and also includes a great chart that beginners will find a great launching pad for experimentation and creativity.
While there are some moments of disjointedness (the Pisco sour recipe comes before any reference to Pisco) and her specs may not be to everyone’s taste (she recommends vigorously shaking a martini), the turns of phrase (“A pastiche of Pastis”) and cheeky recipes (The Perfect Pastis: 1 plane ticket to Paris, 1 summer afternoon, 1 sidewalk café) more than make up for any minor shortcomings.
Marlene’s Last Word: The lovely illustrations, the easily digestible format and the thoroughly engaging writing style make this a coffee table book you’ll keep coming back to.
The main issue I ran into as a young spirits enthusiast was the dearth of legitimate information about what spirits actually were. Bars and bartenders being what they were, there was a lot of folklore and marketing hokum around spirits and brands, and that was compounded by the old wives’ tales being spread amongst young drinkers. (Honestly, I can’t just blame the young drinkers — who hasn’t heard from a boomer relative about how they can’t drink anything but vodka or they’ll get a hangover, or how tequila will make you want to get in a fight?) Finding out about the definition of bourbon during the first few years of Wikipedia involved traipsing through multiple internet forums for potentially inaccurate information or wading through dusty library stacks. Most of what bartenders knew about a specific brand of spirit came from the back of a bottle or a mouthy liquor store employee, rather than from a brand ambassador or a carefully curated brand website. Along with the mainstreaming of cocktail culture, the last decade is notable for the explosion of transparency of brands (due to the rise of ambassador positions and consumers becoming much more savvy about what they drink) and the broad publication of what previously would be niche books about most every aspect of drink-making. After spending a week in Kentucky and re-reading “The Drunken Botanist,” I find myself gripped by the same jealousy I felt the first time I read “The Bar Book”: all that knowledge I had fought and scraped for, learned behind the bar or by picking the mind of better bartenders, is now easily available in one place. In the case of “The Drunken Botanist,” it’s information I found amongst reviews of dead spirits and rambling accounts of defunct distilleries published by small academic presses now all laid out, easy and accessible for the young bartender. Kids these days don’t know how good they have it.
Much like “America Walks into a Bar,” our reviewed book from last month, “The Drunken Botanist” is both an easy book to read and a difficult one to review based on prior criteria. It fulfills a very specific niche and does it quite well; that alone makes it uniquely readable. While it shares the not-really-necessary cocktail recipes and a few of the other hallmarks of other modern cocktail books, it’s not really a cocktail book at all. Rather, it is a book you can judge somewhat by its cover: it lists the various grains, herbs, fruits, flowers, and other plants that are present in spirituous beverages and details their history. It gives examples of how they are used in spirits, maybe lists a cocktail using one of those spirits, and that’s about it. It doesn’t provide tasting notes or many flavor pairings, and other than a few brief asides (like a limoncello recipe) doesn’t instruct you on how to infuse the various plants listed or how to present them as garnishes. It’s a biology and history piece almost entirely, but as a bartender whose gimmick is that he’s the nerd who knows everything about booze, down to weird side stories, it’s a fascinating and useful one.
“The Drunken Botanist” is eminently professional. Due to its tight focus, it is maybe the first book we have reviewed where I can’t say anything bad about its structure or layout. There is a lot of wasted space devoted to attractive borders around each page, but since we’re not paying for page count and the book is information-dense, that’s not necessarily a strong criticism. Since the book isn’t illustrating techniques or accurate layouts, the line-art is appealing and evocative. The various sidebars and asides — some of which last multiple pages — are helpfully delineated both by headings and by a nice green background colour. The index is lengthy and comprehensive. The progression of chapters makes sense: the first part details the grains, fruits, and starches that serve as the base for most spirits, with helpful asides about yeast and brief in-line mentions of enzymes; the second section details most of the flavoring elements, from herbs and spices to fruit used in infusions; the third and briefest section is reserved for plants used mostly for garnishes. Ms. Stewart’s prose is passionate but always functional, and while a lot of information is rapidly presented, the reader should be easily able to follow along.
When I first read “The Drunken Botanist,” less than a year after it was first released, I was in the midst of a heavy research stage. It was shortly after my son was born, and I found that a newborn meant a lot of time to sit and read in the wee hours. Surrounded by a bumper crop of great bar books, “The Drunken Botanist” didn’t leap out at me — after all, I had just read through two histories of American distilling and the first edition of “Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert,” and followed it with “Liquid Intelligence,” so I missed how easily Ms. Stewart made complex concepts like “barley is useful for distilling due to its enzyme load” or the effect of phylloxera in general on winemaking (and its ripple effects, like the rise and demise of absinthe) completely digestible. Approaching the book again, I was delighted on how re-readable it is. I actually re-wrote this sentence ten times trying to find a single anecdote to illustrate how clever some of the asides in the book are, but there are honestly too many to choose from — from Nixon’s baiju disasters to the Salem witch trials being caused by bad rye to the takedown of the crazy Fernet Branca saffron tale, there’s a fun anecdote every two to three pages. While none of them are laugh-out-loud funny, they appeal deeply to the kid at my core who used to read books of facts and drive his family crazy quoting them for hours on road trips.
At its heart, “The Drunken Botanist” is a book-length version of the chapter in seemingly every bar book that gives you a brief explanation of what each spirit is, but with the presentation turned on its head. That flipping of focus — from “tequila is a spirit made from blue agave” to “here’s a chapter entirely about agave and its biology and, as an aside, here’s what they make from it” — actually makes spirits into a narrative, into culture. That’s what being a specialized bartender is about: understanding that what we do isn’t putting things into a glass, it is contextualizing a moment. Bourbon isn’t a spirit made of corn, barley, and rye or wheat; the corn is there because it was the dominant local crop, the rye was a hearty immigrant grain, the barley was needed for fermentation, and those made the spirit, not the other way around. Like “America Walks into a Bar,” “The Drunken Botanist” speaks to our place as storytellers and salesmen, but where Ms. Sismondo’s book is a reminder of our place as stewards of change, Ms. Stewart’s book addresses the history (after all, what is biology but history?) of what we drink.
Lucas’s Last Word: If someone wants to know how to work at or run a bar, you give them “The Bar Book” or “The Bartender’s Guide.” If someone wants to know how to use spirits and other ingredients, give them “The Flavor Bible.” If someone wants to understand spirits, understand where they come from and why we use the ingredients they contain, “The Drunken Botanist” is where it’s at — and because of that it probably has a much wider audience than any of the other bar books we’ve reviewed so far.