Oh, Amy Stewart, you've done it again!! Previously, in Wicked Plants and Wicked Bugs, we learned how potentially benign gifts of nature can be our deadly undoing. That made us all much more cautious and caused all sorts of stress and worry. And, how did we cope and calm down? We had a simple and refreshing libation. Now, in The Drunken Botanist, we learn that our basic alcohol over ice with a dash of whatever and a splash of something and a sprig for a picturesque finish is not so simple after all. It's wrought with geography and history and botany and chemistry and politics and enough complexity to make one wish for simpler days of temperance and Prohibition. Well, that may be taking it too far, but it's at least enough to cause one to quickly sit down, pour oneself a drink, grab this book, and ponder what to do next!
It's always best in arenas of the unknown to start at the beginning and that is exactly what The Drunken Botanist does. To understand and appreciate the book is just like making a cocktail. Part I enumerates the plants that are used to make the basic varieties of alcohol. You quickly learn that there are almost an unlimited number of results of fermentation or distillation. What you get usually is dependent upon plant availability, geography, or tradition. What you do with your basic alcohol (aging, etc.) can then produce the next range of products.
Moving on to Part II, we now start adding various herbs and spices, flowers, trees, fruit, and nuts and seeds to our "basic" alcohol. This is how we get to that whole range of liqueurs, crèmes, fruit-this and nut-that. I'm particularly intrigued by the origins and history and varieties of gin. I've long said that there should be a museum of gin. And do you know anyone else who carries a little picture card in his wallet showing some ten botanicals in gin!
What is striking at this point is how important the varieties of alcohol and spices have been in the trade and commerce and history of the world.
Part III finishes the cocktail with the bounty of the garden used, as some would say, a garnish, but more importantly as fresh ingredients in your libation or as an integral part of a well-considered finished product.
There's a basic backbone that runs through The Drunken Botanist so that it's readable for a good knowledge and understanding of the depth and breadth of the subject, but there are also so, so many small sections and sidebars that can be read separately (and at random). There's more basic knowledge and trivial pleasure here than you could quickly skim through.
So, taking my gin martini ... on ice with dry vermouth and orange bitters ... in hand, I'm ready to read on. The only thing that I might ask for is some new liquor that might stand as tall as the redwoods of Amy Stewart's northwestern California. St. George Spirits has their Botanivore gin with 19 botanicals, Anchor Distilling (San Francisco) has their Junipero gin, and Clear Creek Distillery produces Douglas fir eau-de-vie. Maybe something along the lines of a Sequoia semprevirens liqueur. Hmmm.