Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Drunken Botanist - lessons from Amy Stewart's exploration of the plants that intoxicate

I love a good cocktail. The rise in the popularity of cocktail culture and craft cocktails has made me very happy. As with professional chefs, I find it amazing that people can still come up with unique creations. Our last dinner out included the Nasturtium (citrus vodka, St. Germain, and aperol - served down) for me and an Algonquin (rosemary-infused rye, fresh pineapple, dolin dry vermouth, and orange bitters - served up) for my husband. I admit that I rarely know much about the particulars of these beverages that have become an integral element of dining out. Thinking that it might be fun to learn more about the components that create these little glasses of deliciousness, I picked up The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World's Great Drinks from my local library. 
Like Wicked Bugs, The Drunken Botanist is written as a compendium of sorts with accompanying pen and ink illustrations of the plants described. Here, Stewart focuses on the plants that people have used throughout history to create alcoholic beverages. There is good coverage of both the classic ingredients (e.g., rye, wheat, hops, and grapes) and the plants used for the mixers and garnishes that are essential to create the perfect cocktail. In the spirit of the book, here is a litany of things that I learned:

  • The invention of the Moscow Mule highlights the kind of story I love. The drink was first created in 1941 through the collaboration of a vodka distributor, who hoped to introduce Americans to vodka, and a bartender, who had extra ginger beer in stock. Because the bartender's girlfriend owned a company that manufactured copper mugs, these became an element in the recipe. A recent rise in the cocktail's popularity has led to an increase in thefts of the distinctive copper mugs. (In the course of my research, I noticed that Wikipedia has a slightly different version of the story of the invention of the drink, which is to be expected.)
  • The distinctive smell of the dentist office is caused by the use of clove extract as a dental anesthetic.
  • The fragrance of jasmine flowers is due to several compounds, including phenyl-acetic acid. Based on genetic differences, some people find that jasmine flowers smell like honey, while others compare the scent to urine. This is similar to the small genetic differences that cause some people to perceive a horrible smell in urine after eating asparagus or to find that cilantro tastes like soap (Julia Child and I share that one).
  • Some figs must be pollinated by a wasp in order to reproduce. The wasp then lays its eggs inside the fig and dies there. Those figs would contain little bits of wasp carcass. Most figs in use today can bear fruit without pollination. This tidbit makes me love figs just a little bit more.
  • I was surprised by the number of stories about the link between alcoholic beverages and scurvy. For example, in the 1500s, the British navy included beer in their fleet's rations, both because water would spoil at sea and to keep the sailors happy. Unfortunately, beer also went bad on longer voyages, which led to the use of grog (rum mixed with water, lime juice, and sugar). The lime juice was initially added to make the drink palatable, but it had the indirect result of improving the sailors' health. In some cases, the vitamin C deficiency was combated with spruce beer; spruce trees produce ascorbic acid to help them survive the cold. Spanish explorers used bitter orange as a treatment for scurvy.  In the course of their travels, they left seeds on an island called CuraƧao, where the bitter oranges are the ingredient in the eponymous liqueur.
  • Initial attempts to make wine from grapes grown in America were abject failures; both native and imported vines were unsuccessful. One problem was an aphid called phylloxera; the American grapevines were resistant to the pest, but European vines were not. Unfortunately, Americans sent infected grapevines to France, where the aphids quickly devastated the wine industry there. The solution: grafting American vines onto old European vines. The second problem was that the American grapes had undergone natural selection by birds, while the European vines had been subjected to hundreds of years of artificial selection by humans. Even today, researchers are working on making palatable wines from the grape vines native to America. 
  • There were numerous mentions of the Dogfish Brewery, who are resurrecting old approaches to making beer. In collaboration with a molecular archeologist, they have recreated several ancient beers based on the discoveries at dig sites.
There are probably other fascinating stories that I am missing, but I think I need to go make a cocktail.

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