Liquid Diet: Q&A with Author Amy Stewart

The best-selling writer talks about her newest book, The Drunken Botanist.

amy stewart drunken botanist

Author Amy Stewart is partnering with GrandTen Distilling and the Museum of Science on April 22nd to discuss the science of distilling. (Photos courtesy of Algonquin Books)

In her previous two books, Wicked Plants and Wicked Bugs, bestselling author Amy Stewart explored some of the deadliest and most cunning flora and fauna on the planet. But in her latest, The Drunk Botanist, she turns to the unassuming shelves of your corner liquor store. What she finds are the thrilling and surreal stories behind the bark, fruit, plants, herbs, nuts, and roots that make up our most famous fermented beverages. Certain ingredients date back to the Jurassic period, other have been resurrected like zombies from fossilized seeds, and one even saved Allied troops from almost certain decimation during World War II.

In advance of Stewart’s forthcoming visit to Boston—she’ll be discussing the science of distilling at the Museum of Science on April 22nd—I chatted with her about her “research,” which included plenty of bad sake, the truth behind inebriated African elephants, and a fungus that can cause a harsher trip than LSD.

What were some of the things that really surprised you as you researched this book?
There’s a lot of interesting historical stuff that deals with how we’ve interacted with plants over the centuries. For instance, I interviewed an archeologist named Patrick McGovern who studies the archaeology of fermentation and distillation. That’s his job. Who even knew that was a job! He analyzes residues on pottery shards at archeological digs to figure out what people were drinking ten thousand years ago. It turns out what people were drinking is pretty weird and different than what we drink today. He’ll come up with something that looks to him like it’s got some Muscat grapes and some barley and some saffron. It’s not beer, it’s not wine, it’s some strange combination of both. Dogfish Head brewery in Delaware works with him and recreates these recipes. Also, today there’s a lot of interesting work being done by botanists around the world, and it’s stuff that people in the cocktail world might not know that much about. I wanted to bridge that gap and bring some of that new, weird science to the cocktail world.

The Drunken Botanist

(Photo courtesy of Algonquin Books)

As part of your research, did you find yourself drinking your way through some of these cocktails and sampling all the various liqueurs?
There was no limit on my liquor budget for like three years. I figure it’s a tax write-off, right? It’s a business expense. I can’t write about it if I haven’t tried it. So I have this crazy liquor collection now. I’m actually kind of hard to please in a bar. If I go to a bar and I don’t see anything better than what I can make at home, I’ll pass. I’ll have a beer. I did try some amazing things, though. There are some really startling things out there. I was at Tales of the Cocktail one year and I had rum with gunpowder in it, which is pretty badass to tell you the truth. I got to try cashew feni, which is a high-proof spirit made from the fruit of the cashew tree. Most people have never even seen the fruit of a cashew tree, much less tasted it.

One of the recurring sections throughout the book is called “Bugs in Booze.” Everyone has associations with worms in mezcal, but what were some other strange trends you encountered?
That stuff just jumped out at me since I had just written a book about bugs. I was always drawn to them. The thing is, you can’t talk about plants without talking about bugs. A lot of these are somewhat known like the worm (which is really the larvae of the agave snout weevil) that can only legally be put into mezcal, not tequila. Mezcal still unfortunately allows the worm, which is a dumb gimmicky thing that some producers do. The people who make really good mezcal absolutely hate that that is still in the law and would love to get rid of that. But it had not really occurred to me the extent to which bugs help move yeast around. A yeast organism eats sugar. That’s what it’s after. Yeast floats around in the air and it’s all over everything. It’s covering me right now. One good way for yeast to get to sugar is to hitch a ride on a bug. Where’s that ant going? Yeast knows it’s heading toward some sugar of some kind. So back in the day when brewers were just in the back of an old barn with an open vat, there would have been plenty of bugs falling into it. They just would have.

Regarding sake, you write, “Even today, we tend to think of sakes as a miserable hot, sour, yeasty drink we once tasted at the urging of an aunt who took us to a Japanese restaurant in Kansas City.” Is that written from some personal experience?
Yeah, it would have been Arlington, Texas, in my case. I thought Kansas City would have had a little broader appeal somehow. I had a sake party for the “research” of this book and I invited a bunch of friends over and they had that reluctance like, “oh, thanks, but no.” One of the things about sake is that it has gotten so much better in the last several years. Even a hundred years ago, the technology just did not allow them to make nearly as fine of a product as they can now. We tend to think that old stuff had to have been better just because of some magical thing about the past, but that’s not true in this case and it’s not true for most alcohol actually.

It turns out that several of this country’s founding fathers were not only involved in building some of the first distilleries, but also in building up our drinking culture. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
People love founding father stories, and famous people stories in general. I’m really suspicious of all of them. Any time you hear that Thomas Jefferson said this or Cleopatra said that, you should automatically be suspicious. George Washington, being a farmer, was already producing a lot of grain and he had a mill. He had a farm manager who convinced him to make whiskey because he owned the entire means of production. So he did. He made rye whiskey and he was probably the biggest producer of whiskey in our fledgling country at the time of his death. Thomas Jefferson was always trying to get native grapevines to produce wine, which never happened. But he tried. And Benjamin Franklin is erroneously believed to have created a recipe for spruce beer. He did not create a recipe for spruce beer, although there are plenty of breweries that like to put Benjamin Franklin’s face on their spruce beer bottles. He just copied the recipe out of a book by Hannah Glasse. Nonetheless, it was in his papers when he died, so it was attributed to him. Beer literature tends to be written by men and tends to be about men. So, here’s poor Hannah Glasse who actually wrote the recipe, and gets no credit. I also found out that Jane Austen made spruce beer and wrote about it in Emma. I was glad to be able to give these two women a place in beer literature

Before it was discovered that hops could be used as a natural preservative in beer, spoilage was a major issue. In your book you cite evidence that bacteria-ridden beer forced the pilgrims on the Mayflower to land at Plymouth, MA. Is it safe to say that had the pilgrims brought aboard hoppy beer there wouldn’t have been a Plymouth colony?
Yeah, you sort of wonder. It was definitely cited as a reason. It sounds like all their provisions were really, really low. So, it might not have just been the beer. It sounds funny like, “oh man, we got to make a beer run,” but in fact that was the only safe thing to drink. Water spoils much quicker than beer. It was actually a health crisis.

Rye is vulnerable to the fungus ergot, which is extremely toxic to people and can induce seizures and psychosis. You point out that, “because rye was a peasant grain, outbreaks of the illness were more common among the lower class, fueling revolutions and peasant uprising.” Do you have some examples of tainted rye causing peasant uprisings?
There are lots of stories throughout the middle ages of this Dancing Mania, or St. Anthony’s Fire. Those are the two terms that are often used for these outbreaks that would happen in small villages. It would have been a really weird thing when it happened, people running out into the streets and acting crazy and getting sick. People did die, as well. It disrupted the social order to such an extreme extent with people abandoning their work or unable to work because they are out of their mind. It’s very much like an LSD trip and that just breaks all the rules about what you’re supposed to be doing that day.

You debunk a number of stories regarding animal intoxication in the wild that are oddly scattered throughout the annals of drinking lore. What’s one of the more famous examples that you found to be more myth than fact?
It’s funny because the myths are always in regard to these enormous animals like bears. You have the one about  elephants and the marula fruit in Africa, supposedly slurping up rotted fruit from the ground and getting drunk because the fruit is just fermenting as it’s laying there rotting. What’s absurd about that is that elephants are pretty smart and they have these amazing trunks that can pick fruit off a tree like a person would. They don’t need to eat garbage off the ground. They have better taste than that. Also, they would have to consume a vast quantity. It takes a lot to get an elephant drunk. There’s no way that mildly fermented fruit sitting on the ground is going to get them drunk.

The recipes for a number of vermouths and liqueurs such as Campari and Fernet Branca are shrouded in mystery. Did you attempt any subterfuge to uncover some of their secret ingredients?
There are 150-year-old, half recipe/half pharmaceutical books that are recipes for things like bitters and liqueurs that are considered somewhat medicinal. It’s pretty easy to find recipes that say Chartreuse or Benedictine. This was before the era of brands, so it’s kind of the style they’re referencing, but you can guess at a lot of the ingredients by looking at those old recipes. A certain amount of ingredients have slipped out over time too. Some of these companies have gone through eras where they gave tours and there are first-hand accounts of people who have been told, yes, there’s cinnamon in it or lemon verbena.

You have a number of amazing cocktail recipes in your book, but one of them is sure to be controversial. Your Classic Martini recipe calls for it to be shaken, not stirred. Cocktail writers like David Wondrich have used up plenty of ink arguing against that.
I think we’ve gotten very precious and very particular about bar techniques. I just wrote the introduction to a Prohibition-era cocktail book that’s called Shake ‘Em Up! It’s interesting to read that book because we’re all so in awe of Prohibition everything and back then there was [recipes like] canned grapefruit juice and bathtub gin, give it a stir and pass it around. There was no fancy techniques, there was none of that. I think if you go back far enough, sure, probably everything was stirred. There’s a huge interest right now in finding the earliest iteration of every single drink. I just don’t know if the original iteration was necessarily the best one. I shake my martini. Whatever.

Amy Stewart will be discussing the science of distilling at GrandTen Distilling (383 Dorchester Avenue, South Boston) on April 22nd from 6:30-9:00pm. Tickets are $15. Cocktails will be available for purchase as well as food from The Dining Car Food Truck.