‘The Drunken Botanist’: Cocktail plants, from garden to glass

Amy Stewart’s new book, “The Drunken Botanist,” explores the plant ingredients in our favorite cocktails (and the lesser known ones too). “Every great drink starts with a plant,” Stewart writes in her introduction, a section aptly titled “Aperitif.”

“If you’re a gardener, I hope this book inspires a cocktail party. If you’re a bartender, I hope you’re persuaded to put up a greenhouse or at least plant a window box.”

Subtitled “The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks,” the book covers more than 150 plants, organized by classics such as agave, herbs and spices like wormwood and allspice, flowers (think chamomile and violet), fruit (apricot and yuzu, a type of citrus), nuts (almond) and trees (including sugar maple and angostura, whose bark is used to make bitters).

It’s a satisfying shift from Stewart, whose previous books (“Wicked Plants” and “Wicked Bugs”) explored the dangers in nature. This time around, the Eureka, Calif.-based writer -- appearing Monday in Pasadena (details at end of post) -- is celebrating plants that make us feel good.

Crossing the country to research the provenance of spirits and liqueurs, Stewart met and interviewed distillers, botanists, anthropologists, historians, librarians and bartenders.


“My goal with the book was to tell the story of the ingredients of cocktail history,” she said. “In every case, I tried to find a geeky little fact -- something weird that people didn’t know.”

Did you know, for example, that George Washington is America’s most famous early distiller of rye whiskey? According to Stewart, our first president controlled the entire supply chain. His farm manager James Anderson grew and harvested the grains on Washington’s land, ground them into flour or meal at his own gristmill, and converted those grains into whiskey to sell to taverns.

In modern-day Los Angeles, the price of “hand-crafted” cocktails can rival that of an entree at some restaurants, but according to Stewart, when you understand which herbs, berries and flowers add flavor to a drink, it’s easy enough to grow your own intoxicating ingredients.

“It’s definitely true that a good drink in a nice bar is approaching $20,” she said -- a trend that can be attributed to an increased interest in eating (and drinking) seasonal ingredients as well as a revival of old recipes calling for obscure bitters and liqueurs.

In conjunction with the book’s release, the mail-order company Territorial Seeds and Oregon wholesale nursery Log House Plants are introducing cocktail-plant collections.

“There were all these plants that I wanted to grow and I thought other gardeners would too,” said Stewart, who first was featured in The Times for “Flower Confidential,” her book on the cut-flower industry.

She was encouraged when Alice Doyle, co-founder of Log House Plants, suggested a number of unusual cultivars, including the authentic Cuban mint variety grown in Havana called Menta x villosa Cuban Mojito, a ruby-hued celery called Redventure and a Mexican sour gherkin cucumber. The plants will be available by the end of March at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, the Plant Depot in San Juan Capistrano, Potted in Los Angeles and Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar.

Each plant comes with QR codes on the labels that link to videos and drink recipes, and growing tips are available online. “Sure, gardeners will be attracted to these plants,” she said. “But I hope they interest restaurateurs, mixologists and foodies who haven’t gardened before.”


The author will appear at 7 p.m. Monday at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 449-5320.

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