The next time you're sipping on a glass of something boozy, consider the plants behind your beverage. Some of them might spring immediately to mind: grapes in your wineglass, rye in your whiskey bottle, juniper in your gin and tonic. But what about sorghum and coriander? Cinchona and bitter orange?
An incredible diversity of grains, herbs and fruits goes into the world's alcoholic drinks, which means that for the botanically minded, a trip to the liquor store is a little different than it is for the rest of us. Amy Stewart explains what it's like in her new book, The Drunken Botanist. She once stopped by a liquor store with some fellow gardeners and got a little distracted, she writes:
"There wasn't a bottle in the store that we couldn't assign a genus and species to. Bourbon? Zea mays, an overgrown grass. Absinthe? Artemisia absinthium, a much-misunderstood Mediterranean herb. Polish vodka? Solanum tuberosum ... Suddenly we weren't in a liquor store anymore. We were in a fantastical greenhouse, the world's most exotic botanical garden, the sort of strange and overgrown conservatory we only encounter in our dreams."
As Stewart explains to NPR's Renee Montagne, that trip led straight to the writing of The Drunken Botanist. "I was talking about [how] we, as gardeners, should be more interested in this stuff. I mean, look at a bottle of gin. There's nothing in that bottle that isn't a plant. And the evening wears on, and I finally said, 'Somebody ought to write a book about this!' And all my friends said, 'Yeah, why don't you do it? You're the one who can't shut up about it!' "
So she did, writing a book that makes familiar drinks seem new again. Stewart describes beer by way of the challenges of wheat fermentation, and her discussion of gin starts with how to pick juniper berries. Through this horticultural lens, a mixed drink becomes a cornucopia of plants: A Manhattan may contain just three ingredients and a garnish, but Stewart says that a single glass holds over 20 plants.
"You can start with the whiskey, which would contain barley, rye and wheat or corn. And of course it's been soaked in an oak barrel, so let's not forget that that's another plant, the oak tree, that has a huge role in cocktails," she explains. "And then you add sweet vermouth, which is a wine base — so there's your grapes — and then vermouth has a lot of spices and herbs. And then you splash on some Angostura bitters, and Angostura bitters have, oddly enough, not Angostura bark, but has a lot of other roots and seeds. And the final ingredient in a Manhattan is, of course, a cherry, and so there's one more plant."
The Drunken Botanist is organized by ingredient, with entries for plants both common (barley is found in beer, vodka and whiskey) and unusual (violet liqueurs aren't exactly a liquor cabinet staple). But Stewart argues that some odd-sounding plants are actually surprisingly common — like sorghum, for example. It's not a familiar grain for most Americans, but elsewhere in the world it's an alcohol staple.
"It's grown across Africa and used to make this homemade beer, this cloudy, opaque beer," Stewart says. "It's also grown across Asia, and particularly in China, where it's used to make mao-tai. ... I think that sorghum might actually be the plan that turns up in more alcohol around the world than any other, believe it or not."
In addition to featuring cocktail recipes, Stewart includes growing information for many of the ingredients she describes (and a seed company has put out a plant collection with her favorites). Some plants, like barley, are not for the faint of heart, but others are beginner-friendly: Stewart recommends that home mixologist-gardeners check out the Mexican sour gherkin cucumber.
"It's not technically a cucumber, but it's very closely related," she explains. "The fruits are the size of a grape and they're green with little white markings, so they actually look like miniature watermelons. And they taste great: They're sort of a little more tart than a regular cucumber, but they just look extraordinary."
And the best part, for those of us who lack Stewart's green thumb? "The vines happen to be very prolific, so you do not have to be a very good gardener."
As someone who has managed to underwater a cactus, I'll drink to that.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
OK, Steve. As they say, its 5 p.m. somewhere. So...
MONTAGNE: ...let's spend some time contemplating cocktails.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Pretty darn far east of here. But anyway, that's fine; in particular, the plants, flowers, vegetables and seeds that your favorite libations are made of. Barley, by the way, becomes scotch. Rice becomes sake. Sugarcane is rum.
MONTAGNE: And distillers don't stop there. They add things like elder flowers, jasmine or juniper berries to craft a more complex taste. Amy Stewart has written about wicked plants and wicked bugs. Her latest book is "The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the World's Great Drinks."
AMY STEWART: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: You write, in this book, about going into a liquor store and having a vision of a garden in the bottles; everywhere you turn, you don't just see the drink, but you see the grains, fruits and flowers that have disappeared into it.
STEWART: Yeah, that's right. You know, I was with some friends. We actually went out to a liquor store to get some ingredients for this drink I wanted to make for them. And throughout the whole day - because I was with a bunch of gardeners - I was talking about, you know, we as gardeners should be more interested in this stuff. I mean, look at a bottle of gin. There's nothing in that bottle that isn't a plant.
And the evening wears on and I finally said, somebody ought to write a book about this. And all my friends said, yeah, why don't you do it?
STEWART: You're the one that can't shut up about it.
MONTAGNE: It does sound like a perfect conversation to have when you've had a couple, actually.
MONTAGNE: Give us an example of one drink. You know, I like Manhattans. One drink and what it's made up of.
STEWART: Well, I like Manhattans too. And I'm glad to know that you're a Manhattan drinker. We have that in common. And I think actually that's a great example. Manhattan easily has 20 or 30 plants in it. So you can start with the whiskey, which would contain barley, rye and wheat or corn. And of course it's been soaked in an oak barrel, so let's not forget that that's another plant - the oak tree that has a huge role in cocktails.
And then you add sweet vermouth, which is a wine base - so there's your grapes. And then vermouth has a lot of spices and herbs. And then you splash on some Angostura bitters. And Angostura bitters have, oddly enough, not Angostura bark, but has a lot of other roots and seeds. And the final ingredient in a Manhattan is, of course, a cherry, and so there's one more plant.
MONTAGNE: Tell us what plant turns up in more drinks than any other.
STEWART: Well, that's a very interesting question. It's hard to figure that out. So here's my theory on this. I think that barley is very, very common because barley is in almost every kind of grain spirit around the world. And that forms the basis for not just beer and vodka and whiskey, but a lot of other liqueurs might have a grain base.
But a really intriguing plant that I kind of fell in love with as I was writing this book is sorghum. Sorghum is a grain that we don't think about a lot. It's actually the fourth largest crop grown in the United States. And it's grown across Africa and used to make this homemade beer, this cloudy, opaque beer. And it's also grown across Asia and particularly in China, where it's used to make mao-tai, which is a very strong, clear spirit that is a traditional part of Chinese banquets.
So I think that sorghum might actually be the plant that turns up in more alcohol around the world than any other - believe it or not.
MONTAGNE: You have a section in the book that you titled "Bugs in Booze." In this particular case you're talking about earthworms.
STEWART: You know, any time you're talking about plants, bugs are not far away, right? So I kept reading reviews of scotch where they would talk about the worm flavor. And I thought, what are they talking about. Well, it turns out that it's a distilling term. As the spirit is coming out of the still, it goes through this particular kind of cooling and condensation process, in this curly piece of copper tubing that they call a worm.
And so, scotch connoisseurs believe that they can taste the difference when that particular piece of equipment is used to make the scotch. And they call that a worm flavor. But no earthworms were harmed in the making of the scotch, I can assure you of that.
MONTAGNE: Many a college student is quite familiar with a particular use of a worm in spirits - that you are very down on. And that's the gusano that's at the bottom of a bottle of mezcal or sometimes tequila. Bad idea, right?
STEWART: Well, yeah, bad idea. So it's not found in tequila. By law, if you're going to put the word tequila on the label, you can't have anything in the bottle except tequila. So it's found in mezcal and it's the larvae of a pest that attacks the agave plant. But it's a gimmick. There are people in Mexico making extraordinarily fine artisanal mezcals who would really like to see that banned because they think it reflects badly on the whole category.
MONTAGNE: Well, just a last question. If one is looking to do an unusual garnish, or something particularly delicious, what might you suggest?
STEWART: There is this amazing little cucumber relative. It's called Mexican sour gherkin cucumber. It's not technically a cucumber, but it's very closely related. The fruits are the size of a grape and they're green with little white markings, so they actually look like miniature watermelons. And they taste great. They're sort of a little more tart than a regular cucumber, but they just look extraordinary.
And the vines happen to be very prolific, so you do not have to be a very good gardener to be able to grow Mexican sour gherkin cucumbers.
MONTAGNE: Amy Stewart's latest book is called "The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World's Great Drinks."
Thank you very much for joining us.
STEWART: Oh, thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.