My wife and I biked home from work one humid spring evening to find an icy Mason jar sweating by the doormat. It was a gift from our neighbor, the widow of a Swedenborgian minister, an intrepid gardener known for her climbing roses. The jar was stuffed with a tangle of greens — a frilly ground cover she snipped each late April and early May called sweet woodruff. It gave off the warm scent of cardamom or maybe shavings of cedar. And steeped in white jug wine with sliced strawberries, it was the signature of the fragrant spring time chiller that Germans call maiwein, or May wine.
We’d had it before. But this time around, hot and parched from our ride, we guzzled it down on the porch, rocking on the swing, until the fireflies came out. And until, well, our heads were spinning. We barely made it in the door. Was there something different in the wine this time? we asked our neighbor after we’d sobered up. She looked puzzled, then brightened: “Oh, I added a cup of vodka. For pep!”
Oy, we’d imbibed far more than our minimum daily requirement of alcoholized fruits and grains and leaves. But what did we know? In the spirit world — and in the wine, craft-beer and brave new artisan cocktail worlds, for that matter — what you see is not always quite what you think you’re getting. Is there angostora bark in Angostora Bitters? Maybe, maybe not. A trademark fight led to obscure labeling. Why does Maker’s Mark bourbon seem gentler? It adds wheat, instead of the usual rye, to its mix, removing rye’s spicy bite. Does innocent-looking sweet woodruff have toxic levels of coumarin? At times, yes. But not if it’s picked in the early spring.
In fact, most of us don’t have a clue about the botanical mysteries that lurk — luxuriate? — in our bottles of Bluecoat gin and bowls of punch, in the rattling shakers and sparkling stemware we engage to sand the rough edges off.
But there are, indeed, stories behind every sip, starring the exotic and prosaic plants that perfume our booze, give rise to our vodka (tap-lines of maple sap are run straight into one small-batch distillery in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom) and turn water (at Dogfish Head’s brewery in Milton, Del.) into a cacao-inflected beer. Those curious stories and asides are the stuff of nature writer Amy Stewart’s latest amble through the garden, “The Drunken Botanist.”
Spoiler alert: No actual botanists get drunk in these pages. In fact, they come off as heroic stiffs, a diligent, self-sacrificing lot. One of them. David Douglas of fir tree fame, killed on a volcano in Hawaii; another , USDA plant explorer Frank Meyer, who brought the sweet Meyer lemon back from China, was swept to his death down the Yangtze River in 1918. And most poignant of all, the academician Nikolai Vavilov, a tireless, globe-trotting geneticist who ran afoul of Stalin’s pseudo-science and was tossed into a Soviet jail, where he died in 1943 after a career trying to boost Russia’s famously erratic crop yields. Stewart dedicates one of her featured cocktail recipes to him, the Vavilov Affair, a twist on the Old Fashioned with equal parts applejack and bourbon.
She is something of a Queen of the Jungle these days, with three New York Times bestsellers under her belt: “Wicked Bugs,” “Wicked Plants” and “Flower Confidential.” But like ultra-hoppy beer, this latest effort may tickle the initiated while leaving newcomers wondering on occasion if there can be too much of a good thing.
“The Drunken Botanist” is a strange brew — part Ripley’s Believe It or Not, part compendium on the order of “Schott’s Original Miscellany” and part botanical garden tour, albeit with a curated cocktail party at the end. It is meant, one supposes, as a companionable reference and whimsical recitation of historical-botanical trivia, with a little tart debunking. Tequila? Like a fine Scotch, the good stuff requires only a splash of water, she suggests. No lime and salt, which originated as cover-ups for rough flavors in low-end brands.
What Stewart’s book lacks in narrative spine, though, it makes up in easygoing charm, sly wit and an eye for the telling anecdote. Who knew that the Filipino still that transformed Mexico’s spirit-making was born of a thriving Manila-Acapulco trade, itself born of favorable sea breezes that sped Spanish galleons across the Pacific (until 1815) in a mere four months?
Or that when, in 1972, President Richard Nixon matched his toasting Chinese hosts drink for drink, he was quaffing a potent sorghum libation, mao-tai, said to taste like “liquid razor blades”? Or that large commercial malting houses that pipe peat smoke through malted barley, reducing the peat used by old-school, eight-hour “floor malting,” might be the last, best hope for conserving Scotland’s storied peat bogs?
Talk about tidbits one might feel compelled to sprinkle — one hopes with a degree of restraint — into one’s own cocktail party patter.
Order is imposed: The book devotes a few pages to the transformation of each grain or grape into wine, beer or spirits; then to the herbs, spices, fruit and nuts that suffuse them; and, finally, to finishing garnishes (the orange-peel zing in a negroni, the spearmint leaves in Walker Percy’s mint julep), long with tips on how to grow your own. Agricultural cautions are dispensed: David Suro-Pinera, owner of Siembra Azul tequila, frets that single-minded mono-cropping of Mexico’s agave — the essential ingredient of tequila — may lead to a collapse as catastrophic as Ireland’s potato famine.
Curiosities are shared: The Victorian-era demand for sturdy, aromatic umbrella stems and walking sticks wiped out vast stands of Jamaica’s allspice trees until the imposition of an export ban on saplings in 1882. (Allspice now shows up in gins and is a suspected ingredient in Benedictine.) Newsy headlines are hollered: Read all about how star anise helped launch the sexual revolution! Why an Oregon cherry took the name “Black Republican”! How a fungus in the rye might have sparked the Salem witch trials!
“The Drunken Botanist” is a sipping book, not a quaffing book, best enjoyed in moderation. In front of a fire, perhaps with a Manhattan with a real, not chemically shined, maraschino cherry. Or maybe on a serendipitous spring evening, on the porch swing, with a sweet-scented jar of May wine.
THE DRUNKEN BOTANIST
The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks
By Amy Stewart
Algonquin. 381 pp. $19.95