Talking with Amy Stewart

by Francine Cohen

Credit: Delightful Eye Photography

Award winning author Amy Stewart is a storyteller who has been digging into the plant world since her first memoir about her Santa Cruz garden.

Last summer she joined us at Tales of the Cocktail to explore the myths and mysteries of botany's role in cocktails and enlighten us on the politics of plants.

This spring Stewart's is out with "The Drunken Botanist" and returning to Tales again this July; first, a bit about her new book.

She comments, "My interest in this stems from my desire to want to tell stories. I was never interested in plants (or drinking) as a child, but I always wanted to be a writer. My first book was a memoir about my garden in Santa Cruz, where I lived when I was in my 20s. That was just the thing that was going on in my life at the time, so that's what I wrote about. There was a chapter in that memoir about earthworms, which led to my next book, which was a natural history of earthworms. Every book after that was simply me following some interest that I had.  I now live in Eureka, California, where the largest grower of cut flowers in the country is headquartered. That led to a book on the flower industry. While I was writing that book, I met a botanist who had an interest in poisonous plants. And on it went! I'm lucky that I have a publisher who has been supportive of all of these ideas. It allows me to follow my curiosity wherever it goes.  But in every case, the stories are really about people more than plants. A plant all by itself is just a green thing coming out of the ground. But when a person comes along and thinks of a way to sell it, use it to commit a murder, or make it into a drink or medicine — well, now something interesting is happening. Those are the stories I want to tell."

FC: How did this book come to be?

AS: There actually was an "aha" moment with this book. I was in Portland hanging out with a friend of mine, Scott Calhoun, who is an expert on agaves. He had a bottle of Aviation Gin with him, and he said, "Somebody gave me this bottle, and I don't really drink gin, so I don't know what to do with it."  I said, "Oh, I know what to do with it!" I made him a version of a gin and tonic that included muddled cucumbers, celery, pepper, and cilantro. It was fabulous.  As the evening went on, I kept saying, "I can't believe you're not interested in gin! There are so many interesting plants in this bottle. I mean, if you think about it, pretty much everything behind the bar is just a collection of distilled plants. From a horticultural perspective, one individual cocktail is incredibly diverse, with plants from all over the world." At some point I think I said, "Somebody ought to write a book about that!" And that's how it began.

FC: How was it received by your editor/publisher/family and friends?

AS: Oh, everybody loved it. What's not to love? You would not believe how many volunteers I have had to help me with my research.

FC: What is it about, exactly?

AS: What I wanted to do was go plant by plant and look at all the plants around the world that we ferment, distill, infuse, muddle, garnish, and so on. I started with fermentation and distillation, so there's a chapter on agave, grapes, rice, etc. Then I moved on to the plants that might get infused into a spirit, which are mostly herbs and spices and fruits. The last section of the book is dedicated to fresh ingredients that are added to cocktails, like mint and cucumber. In every case, I tried to get into a little bit of botanical history, a little bit of science and chemistry, and the story behind how some of these spirits came to be.

SS: Why should bartenders care about botany?

AS: First of all, it can help you make a better drink. For instance, if you know that the bright, citrus, floral flavors in basil or cilantro are highly volatile and are the first to evaporate, you'll understand why you need to use very fresh herbs, and why you can't infuse them in vodka for weeks on end. It also just gives you something interesting to talk about with customers, and most customers really do like talking to their bartender. If you can say, "You should try that Champagne with a little splash of cassis," and then you can explain to them that most Americans have never tasted blackcurrant because the plant was banned for most of the twentieth century over a plant disease -- I mean, that's kind of interesting. It shows that you know your stuff and that you care about where your ingredients come from and what they actually are.  People will trust you if they can tell you know what you're doing, and they'll bring their friends in to meet you if they know you've got an interesting story to tell.

FC: What's new with gentian and violets?

AS: Well, there's always something new going on with any plant, and that's one thing I really wanted to do with this book. It's my job to go around and interview botanists and chemists and find out what they're up to. Most of them have no idea that there's this cocktail culture out there that would really be tremendously interested in their research. So there's a real disconnect between the cocktail community and the people who have devoted their lives to the study of the plants that happen to end up in some of our cocktails.

So for example, with gentian, I interviewed a scientist at Rutgers who is studying the potential medicinal uses of gentian root. Of course, the reason it's in a lot of European liqueurs is that it got its start as medicine. Now we're going back and verifying what some of those medieval pharmacists knew. If a gentian compound is even swished around in the mouth — you don't even have to swallow it — it will stimulate nerve endings in the mouth to produce more saliva and gastric fluids. What that means to most of us is that it stimulates our appetite, but as it turns out, for people recovering from cancer treatment who aren't able to taste to their food or swallow yet, this is something that might actually help them.

And with violets, there is some very interesting research about genetic differences in how we taste or smell violets. Some people are simply genetically unable to taste the really wonderful floral flavors in violets and only taste a soapy molecule that is also present in the flower. (The same is true of cilantro.) So some people are just going to hate a drink with violet liqueur no matter what you do.

FC: In your Tales of the Cocktail 2012 seminar you were discussing the politics of plants- tell us more (or fill in those of us who weren't at your seminar).

AS: Well there are all kinds of geopolitical issues that come up with plants. For instance, the Acacia tree, which produces the resin known as "gum arabic," used in gomme syrup, grows primarily in the Sudan. So it's a real struggle to even keep producing it in this war-torn area. For a while, back in 1997, it looked like Osama bin Laden was heavily invested in gum arabic. So there was talk of imposing sanctions on gum arabic producers, but the soft drink industry jumped in and said that they had to have their gum, so an exception was made. I mean, that's a lot of politics for some tree resin.

FC: Why the recent rise in sorghum in the US?  This seems to me like something you're seeing as a "new" ingredient discovered by bartenders yet it seems to me to be something that's been around for ages.  Are we witnessing a revival and why?

AS: It is a revival, and that's a very good thing. Most people don't realize that sorghum is the fourth largest crop in this country. There are two types, one grown for the grain and the other grown for the sweet stalks. Both can be used for fermentation. What's great about sorghum is that it's pretty sturdy — it resists drought and it's really a survivor.  For that reason, it's grown all over Africa, where people make a tremendous amount of homemade sorghum beer. It's also used in China to make the spirit maotai. Now it's turning up in gluten-free beers, and American producers are doing spirits, like Sorgrhum, from Colglazier and Hobson Distilling Company in Indiana.  They're making it with sorghum molasses they buy from an Amish farmer down the road. It's a very sustainable and very local.

FC: What plants do you see being used over and over in spirit production?  Why is that?

AS: Well, certain plants just lend themselves to fermentation or distillation. Barley is a great example. A grain is nothing but a seed full of sugar that's been stored in the form of starch. The reason the plant did that is to feed the seedling until it's old enough to feed itself. So when you get it wet, as we do when we malt barley, you trick it into thinking that it's about to germinate. Enzymes go to work breaking that starch back into sugar, and then you've got something you can feed to yeast. Barley happens to be so high in those enzymes that it can actually help break down the starch in other grains, like corn or wheat. So for that reason, you see it in almost any grain spirit.

FC: What can we learn from understanding plants better?

AS: I think you can learn a lot about how flavors work together. For instance, last year at Tales we had a bottle of Combier Kummel to taste. The ingredients are caraway seed, cumin, and fennel.  I looked at that and the first thing I thought was, "Oh, those plants are all really closely related. They're all in the carrot family." So if I was going to think about mixing a drink with that, I might think about other plants in the carrot family, which might all contain similar flavor molecules. So I might look at angelica, cilantro, dill, parsley…. Just by knowing how these plants are related, I might come up with flavor combinations that work really well together.

FC: What do plants bring to the cocktail experience that most bartenders haven't explored yet?

AS: Well — everything in a cocktail is a plant. What would you be serving that isn't a plant?  Maybe a cream liqueur, but apart from a little milk, and the synthetic junk in the cheap stuff that I hope you're not serving, everything else you're pouring for your customers is just a plant in another form.

FC: What should they be considering?

AS: One thing I would consider is the fact that if you're pouring good spirits, you already have wonderful, botanically rich ingredients in your drink. You really don't need to clutter it up with five different herbs and berries and spices. A Manhattan already contains twenty or thirty plants — how many more do you need? There's no need to get too fancy.

FC: Did you uncover anything "scandalous" in your research?

AS: I spent a crazy amount of time trying to debunk some obscure cocktail myths that probably only matter to about five people. Okay, maybe five dozen. I don't know if it's scandalous or not, but I wrote about a very intriguing set of court cases over the trademarking of Angostura Bitters, and I verified that Benjamin Franklin did not, in fact, invent a recipe for spruce beer, and I tried to poke holes in the rumor that Fernet Branca uses three quarters of the world's saffron supply. Oh, and I debunked two myths about why hops vines grow clockwise. These are little geeky details that hardly anyone will appreciate, but there were definitely times when I spent day after day tracking down the truth behind something that sounded kind of shady to me, and it only ended up being one sentence in the book. It was worth it to me. I hate to see sloppy reporting in any field.

FC: What else haven't we asked you about your work and your book that you'd like to share?

AS: I'll be back at Tales!  I'm giving a talk about trees — all the ways in which tree bark and resin is used in drinks — and I'm going to give a talk about how to create a successful bar garden for growing your own ingredients. And if you're not going to Tales, my publisher is sending me on this crazy book tour over the next couple of months. Please do come out and say hello:

I've also got lots of extra info, including more concrete how-to-grow information, on my website and believe it or not, there is a Drunken Botanist plant collection of cocktail-friendly plants. My only role in that was to choose the plants, but that was fun — there are some really interesting varieties that are very specifically suited to cocktails, including this 'Mojito' mint, which actually comes from Cuba, and these Mexican sour gherkin cucumbers, which are the size of an olive and the coolest garnish I've ever seen.  They decided to do themed collections based on a particular spirit, so there's a vodka collection, rum collection, etc. I had to figure out what plants to pair with each spirit, and recipes to go with them.  It was harder than it sounds!

Amy has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and many other newspapers and magazines. She is the co-founder of the popular blog GardenRant and is a contributing editor at Fine Gardening magazine.

She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, the American Horticulture Society’s Book Award, and a California Horticultural Society Writer’s Award. In 2012, she was invited to be the first Tin House Writer-in-Residence, a partnership with Portland State University.

Amy Stewart lives in Eureka, California, with her husband Scott Brown. They own an antiquarian bookstore called Eureka Books
 and tend a flock of unruly hens in their backyard.

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