Bookseller and author Amy Stewart writes some cool books. Her passion for gardening – and for the printed word – has led to to pen such works as "The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms," "Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities" and "Wicked Bugs: The Louse that Conquered Napoleon’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects."
Stewart’s latest book goes indoors, specifically inside the liquor cabinet, to uncover the close ties between botany and booze.
"The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the World’s Great Drinks" is out now in hardcover from Algonquin Books and Stewart visits Great Lakes Distillery, 616 W. Virginia St., to talk about it on Wednesday, April 10 at 7 p.m. Admission is free and all are welcome.
We got a chance to ask Stewart about what inspires her unusual and engaging books and to talk a bit about the mixology movement and the surprising things she learned about sloes, saffron, noble rot and more.
OnMilwaukee.com: Where do your ideas for these projects come from?
Amy Stewart: My interest in this stems from my desire to want to tell stories. My first book was a memoir about my garden in Santa Cruz, where I lived when I was in my 20s. The garden 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, Calif., 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 make money off it, or 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.
As for "The Drunken Botanist," the idea for that book came about when 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 out to write a book about that!" And that's how it began.
OMC: After you did all the research for this book, do you look at drinks differently? Do you think more about what's behind the booze in the glass?
AS: Definitely! I'm a much pickier drinker now. I insist on really good ingredients, and I refuse to drink anything that has synthetic sweeteners or artificial flavorings. I have also managed to put together a pretty extraordinary liquor collection, so if I'm at a bar that doesn't have anything better than what I could make it home, I usually just skip it.
OMC: I imagine you're the hit of cocktail parties nowadays, with all this drinks knowledge...
AS: Well, I think it's all pretty interesting – I hope everyone else does! There are a lot of fascinating stories behind how any kind of drink came into being – not just a fancy cocktail, but even a glass of wine or beer. Sometimes people say to me, "Oh, you probably want some kind of botanical cocktail, and all we have is beer and wine." Well, what you suppose beer and wine is made of? Nothing but botanical ingredients!
OMC: Did you discover anything that really surprised you when doing the research for the book?
AS: I was surprised at how many myths, half-truths and outright lies surround the world of booze. I didn't think any subject could have more misconceptions and oft-told stories that aren't actually true than the plant world, but that was before I started writing about drinks.
I really went crazy with the research, interviewing botanists and scientists who work on these plants around the world, and going back to original, primary sources. For instance, I kept running across the story about how Benjamin Franklin invented a recipe for spruce beer. There are breweries out there selling spruce beer that they say comes from his recipe.
I checked it out and it turns out that he didn't invent it at all. He copied the recipe out of a cookbook by Hannah Glasse called "The Art of Cookery," first published in 1747. I looked at a copy of her book to verify that it was there. He wasn't copying it to steal it – he was just writing it down for his own use. It happened to be in his papers when he died, but it was never his recipe. Franklin archivists have cleared up that misconception, but the news never made it to breweries who just want to put a picture of Franklin on their label.
Stuff like that drives me crazy! So there are all of these tiny little details in the book that took me days and weeks to track down to verify.
OMC: Is there an ingredient you really came to appreciate, too, perhaps after having never really given it much previous thought?
AS: Lots of them, really. I'm a big fan of cassis now which is not something I ever drank before I went to France in watched it being made. Cassis is a sweet, syrupy liqueur made from black currants. We don't grow black currants much in the United States, because the plant was banned for most of the 20th century. It transmits a disease called white pine blister rust, so timber companies got it banned from the country entirely.
It turns out that it's actually pretty difficult for black currant to spread the disease, and it's easy to control or prevent. So the ban has been lifted, but there are still some states on the East Coast that won't allow it to be grown. I talked to a scientists at Cornell who is determined to get farmers growing it again, and he's going around, state-by-state, to explain to officials why the ban is no longer necessary.
Anyway, I'm growing it now, and I always have a bottle of it around the house. The classic French drink is a Kir, which is a dry white wine with a splash of cassis. But it's also very good in sparkling wine or hard cider. I hear that some people drink it in beer, but I haven't tried that yet.
OMC: Are you surprised by the rise of mixology as an art? A focus on these ingredients seems to have really soared lately.
AS: There is a real focus on ingredients, which I think is great. Hopefully that leads to more bars serving good drinks made with high quality ingredients. I think the only downside is that sometimes quality gets confused with complexity. A drink does not need to have eight or 10 ingredients to be good. A Manhattan is a very simple cocktail, with only four ingredients if you count the cherry, and it doesn't need anything more than that. Between the whiskey, the vermouth, the bitters, and the cherry, there are already probably about twenty plants in the glass. That's enough! There's no need to keep embellishing it.
OMC: What's your favorite drink? Did your favorites change after your research?
AS: I used to drink more gin, but I'm more of a whiskey drinker now. That's not all that unusual – whiskey is enjoying a huge amount of popularity right now. I'm also much more into vermouth and fortified wines as drinks all by themselves.
A good vermouth is really lovely and very drinkable on its own. If anybody out there has a dusty bottle of vermouth on the shelf that's been open for months, throw it out. Vermouth is a kind of wine, and you have to treat it like that. It'll keep pretty well in the refrigerator for a month or so, but it usually doesn't last that long in our house. I usually have a high-quality vermouth like Dolin, a bottle or two of Lillet, and a nice Italian fortified wine like Punt e Mes going at any one time.
They're surprisingly good together – equal parts sweet and dry vermouth are really lovely and pair very well with food. On the West Coast we have two fantastic vermouths, Imbue and Vya. Both really worthwhile.
OMC: With your great book ideas, I'm eager to hear what's coming next.
AS: It's a secret! You'll just have to wait.
OMC: Have you been to Milwaukee before? Do you plan to check out Bittercube or Distil or any of the local mixologists here?
AS: I have been to Milwaukee – I've been out to speak at Boerner Botanical Gardens, and I know that they are helping to get the word out about this event we're doing at Great Lakes Distillery with Boswell Books. It'll be nice to get back! I doubt I'll be hitting any bars after – I'm pretty much in a different city every day on this tour, so I have to behave myself!
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.