By Kit Waskom Pollard
For The Baltimore Sun
4:43 PM EDT, October 8, 2013
The next time you're in a liquor store browsing the shelves, imagine you're strolling through a garden.
That bottle of gin is a juniper bush with citrus peels and maybe some coriander and even lavender thrown in for good measure. Tequila? Made from the roasted heart of an agave plant. The wine — that's easy — is a tangle of grapevines.
That every spirits shop is a garden is the subject of Amy Stewart's best-selling book, "The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the World's Great Drinks." Stewart, a Californian renowned for her funny and smart writing about plants and gardening, will be at Cylburn Arboretum next week to share stories from the book — and a few drinks — with Baltimoreans.
The Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory & Botanic Gardens is presenting the event as part of its 125th anniversary celebration. A cocktail reception will follow, with food by Sascha's and drinks — from the book — mixed by a team from Rye in Fells Point.
Stewart's research into the background of drinks covers more than just botany. Her stories span multiple disciplines, delving into the science and history of certain drinks and even touching on pop culture and debunking long-held myths about historical figures.
"It's always great to find an interesting story about a famous person who might have been involved with a plant," she says. "I dig into history and literature looking for big names."
One of the big names Stewart came across was Benjamin Franklin, who has been widely credited for a spruce beer recipe. After extensive research, Stewart discovered that the true author of the recipe was a woman named Hannah Glasse, who wrote a cookbook in 1747. Franklin copied her recipe for personal use; when historians uncovered the recipe in his papers, they incorrectly attributed it to him.
As with the popularity of eating locally grown food and knowing where our meat comes from, exploring the stories behind what we drink is part of a growing trend, as imbibers become more discerning, taking interest in the roots — literal and figurative — of what's in their glasses.
"In order to craft drinks at a high quality, it's important to be informed of where spirits come from and the process with which they're made," says Doug Atwell, head mixologist at Rye, where a copy of "The Drunken Botanist" sits behind the bar for reference.
Garden-minded people in Maryland have been exploring the boozy side-products of our local botanical bounty for years. Maryland Native Plant Society member Steve Parks recalls an experiment brewing wine using locally grown elderberries.
"I messed up and got vinegar instead," he says. But all was not lost. "My aunt, a gourmet cook, asked for the lot as salad vinegar. The supply lasted her almost 10 years, and she mourned the last drop."
Parks also adds elderberry juice to lemonade and has fond memories of his grandmother's homemade sassafras tea, made from the roots of a sassafras tree. But he warns that home brewers need to be careful.
"Many native and non-native plants contain irritants or outright poisons," he says. "Some can kill."
Local companies like MillStone Cellars in Monkton have taken brewing with local plants to the next level. Now in its second year of business, MillStone uses local apples, along with other natural ingredients, to make cider and mead.
Kyle Sherrer, who owns MillStone with his father, Curt, says his first step was research.
"It was a lot of researching old books that catalog what apples people were using in America," he explains. "The good thing is there's a decent amount of knowledge. The bad thing is that there aren't a lot of farms growing them."
One of the farms that does grow historically accurate, organic apples is Country Pleasures Farm in Middletown. When deciding which varietals to plant, owner Eric Rice started his historical research right at the source.
"We went to Monticello to find out what Jefferson grew and to Mount Vernon to find out what Washington grew," he says. "I talked to old-timers in the mountains when I was in grad school in North Carolina."
Like Rice and Sherrer, Stewart believes in digging deep for facts and stories. She began her research for the book by seeking out early botanical information and experts on each plant.
"I'm big on primary sources," she says. "And for every plant, there's a botanist somewhere." She also spoke with distillers and bartenders around the world.
Though Stewart lives on the West Coast, she acknowledges that this side of the country holds a special allure for botanical history.
"That's the fun thing about the East Coast: Your history with this stuff goes so much farther back than ours does," she says. "There's early, early drinking and distilling."
Her research has made Stewart a more discerning drinker. "I'm not going to waste my time on something that's not amazing," she says. "I'm more choosy and better informed about what's behind the bar. I'm very averse to artificially flavored syrups or vodkas. If you want blueberries in a drink, pick some blueberries!"
The Rye team agrees with Stewart. At the talk, "we're crafting drinks to directly pay homage to the amazing range of plants that visitors can find at the conservatory," says Atwell. "Each drink will feature at least one ingredient a visitor could find at Rawlings."
One of those drinks will be sangria, which is made with the opuntia plant — currently in bloom at the conservatory.
With drinks, food and lively stories, lecture guests will learn a lot but have a good time, too, says Michael Lemmon, community aide at the conservatory.
"It's going to be really, really fun," he says. "Amy is really smart but not highbrow. She doesn't get bogged down in horticultural language. She makes things very accessible for people, from a regular backyard gardener to a horticulturist or botanist."
And that's Stewart's ultimate goal — a wide audience. She wants to inform experts, but she says it is equally important "to appeal to people who aren't big plant geeks or cocktail geeks."
For Marylanders who want to know more about what's in their glasses, and about what grows locally, Stewart's talk and book will be a good first dig into the subject.
Prickly pear sangria
The opuntia plant — or prickly pear — is currently in bloom at the Rawlings Conservatory. During the reception, Rye mixologists will serve Amy Stewart's prickly pear sangria to celebrate the purple fruit's blossom.
Stewart recommends making and freezing a batch of prickly pear syrup when the pears are in season. She suggests adding it to sparkling wine or margaritas or experimenting with "any cocktail that calls for fruit and sugar."
For the drink:
4 ounces brandy or vodka
2 ounces triple sec or another orange liqueur
1 bottle dry white wine, such as a white Spanish Rioja
2 ounces prickly pear syrup (see below)
A 6-ounce split of Spanish cava or other sparkling wine (optional)
Thin slices of fruit (lemon, lime, orange, prickly pear, mango, apple, etc.)
Soak the fruit in the brandy and triple sec for at least four hours.
For the syrup:
10 to 12 prickly pear fruits
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1 ounce vodka (optional)
For the syrup, chop the prickly pear fruits roughly, combine with water and sugar, and bring to a boil. Use a strainer to separate the seeds and pulp from the syrup. Store the syrup in a glass jar in the freezer. Adding a little vodka keeps the syrup from freezing solid without significantly changing the character of the drink you make with it.
Combine the wine and prickly pear syrup in a glass pitcher; stir vigorously and add more syrup if you'd like to deepen the color. Stir in the fruit mixture. Serve over ice; top with cava, if desired.
Note: Prickly pear fruits sold in markets generally have the spines removed. If you've harvested the fruit yourself, handle it with metal tongs, as gloves may not protect you. Use a vegetable scrubber to brush the spines off. Then cut off both ends of the fruit, and make one cut from top to bottom. The skin can then be easily sliced away.
Makes 6 servings
Recipes reprinted from "The Drunken Botanist" with permission.
If you go
"A Spirited Toast to the Marriage of Botany and Booze" presents author Amy Stewart from 6-8 p.m. Oct. 16 at the Vollmer Center of Cylburn Arboretum. A cocktail and food reception will follow. Tickets are $40. rawlingsconservatory.org/the-drunken-botanist/
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