What an oddly compelling little tome! Being neither a drinker nor a botanist, you’d think I’d be a poor prospect for a non-fiction work about the botanical origins of alcohol. Instead, I ended up reading this whole work straight through, lured in by the book’s quirky mix of history, chemistry, anthropology, botany, geography, taxonomy, mixology, toxicology, and gardening tips.
Had no idea how much there was to know about booze! That is, I knew from high school biology that yeast can convert pretty much any sugar into alcohol, and I knew that all plants store energy as sugars/starches … but for some reason never put the pieces together; that, ergo, pretty much every imaginable tree/plant/flower/fruit/vegetable/seed can be transformed into an intoxicant. Which, it turns out, is an aim we humans have been obsessively pursuing for the past 4000 years or so!
I now possess answers to so many questions I didn’t even know I had: what makes Kentucky bourbon so good (hint: it’s nothing to do with the alcohol), why almost all apple trees are cloned, why barley – not hops – is the distiller’s best friend, why “100 proof” means 51% pure alcohol, what hops and marijuana have in common, the proper pronunciation of ginseng (turns out I’ve been doing it wrong for 50 years), the unexpectedly swashbuckling and dangerous history of botanical discovery, the chemistry behind the magic that occurs when whisky comes in contact with oak, why moonshine is often so deadly. I’m also now an expert on freaky plant sex, but since this is a family forum I’ll leave it at that!
The book is laid out as if to be used as a reference book, but as my experience proves, it also works as a cover-to-cover read. Nor is it necessary that you possess a background in science or down drinks like a feature actor on the show Mad Men to find this entertaining and enriching. (Though now that I’ve read this, I do find myself possessed by an irresistible desire to sample all the exotic beverages and cocktails Stewart describes – is there such a thing as a “Drunken Botanist completist”? – which could definitely put a dent in my happy hour productivity.)
Perhaps because this book is so quirky is why it worked for me: I do love it when an author takes me in hand and introduces me to a whole new discipline/philosophy/pursuit/world that I never appreciated before!