The Drunken Botanist: a review

by frankbeswick

Amy Stewart has excelled herself in this erudite, well-written specialist work.

This is a reference work that will [pardon the pun] leave readers in high spirits! Amy Stewart, a botanist, writer and antiquarian book seller, has produced a comprehensive account of the many plants that have been fermented into drinks, intoxicating and otherwise,though the book focuses on alcohol and is full of the author's love of cocktails.This is a rare production, a reference work that can be read for pleasure. I commend it to readers.

Picture courtesy of Pexels, of Pixabay

The Drunken Botanist

Everyone is entitled to a weakness,  and as long as it harms no one, that's fine! I have never smoked or taken drugs, illegal or otherwise, I hardly gamble,but I do love my food and drink. So a book that gives me a comprehensive account of the various intoxicating beverages that make the human condition bearable was bound to meet my approval. I purchased this book partly with my payment from Amazon Associates, a long awaited reimbursement for writing on Wizzley, and this added to my sense of satisfaction.

The book is quite comprehensive, and it is divided into several sections, beginning with plants that are brewed or distilled into beer, wine or spirits. Amy Stewart has done thorough research into these plants and leaves none out; and this makes the book very informative for anyone who wants to widen their taste buds beyond the constraints of their cultural limitations, besides its constituting a valuable  research resource for scholars. The material is alphabetically arranged for ease of reference. A section on strange brews, such as cashew nut apple and date palm wine, which is not made by fermenting dates, but from the sap, adds quite a degree of interest to the book.

The author goes on to deal with flavourings, such as flowers, herbs, spices and fruit, then proceeds to a section on trees, where she  deals for example, with substances derived from the American and Canadian favourite, maple and the delicacy of birch wine and beer. The latter is hardly known in Britain, but birch wine is a lovely drink, I can vouch for that, as I  sampled it in a woodland restaurant in the Scotland. Amy Stewart's expert botanical knowledge enables her to draw upon a wide range of trees and other plants, including some that I never knew were the source of drinks, such as the prickly pear and the monkey puzzle tree. Her botanical thoroughness is shown by the fact that very plant is given its botanical name and also assigned to a plant family, a taxonomical category a step higher than a genus.

There is useful information on how the brew is made both in the culture in which it originates and in modern societies. She recounts historical  accounts of how the brew/spirit originated and how it was used in society, and you will find various brands that produce the brew identified in the text. She cannot resist giving recipes for cocktails where relevant. 

But as an expert on poisonous plants, she knows when to give warnings, and this is particularly useful to anyone considering foraging for flavourings etc, for she shows that some apparently harmless plants can be related to poisonous ones, sometimes toxic even to the point of being deadly.This is expert advice well worth heeding. 

Examples From the Book

As a sometime home brewer I have often wondered why barley seems to be the preferred grain for brewers,and I wondered why wheat was not used. My one attempt at wheat wine was not a success, and now I know why. Amy uses her botanical expertise to explain why the protein content that makes wheat so suitable for bread makes it less than  ideal for fermentation, and this also explains why barley is so suitable for brewing. At this point I have a tiny criticism, she does not mention the  cereal bere,pronounced bear,  an ancient form of barley unique to the Orkney Islands  and occasional spots in Northern Scotland, which is now beginning to be used in whisky production, but to be fair its use for whisky  is so new that it is yet to be significant.

Amy Stewart also hazards an opinion on the perennial Scots-Irish quarrel as to which of them invented whisky [note whisky is the Scots' spelling; whiskey is the Irish.] She thinks, with good reason,that as the climate of North-Eastern Scotland is so suitable for barley production the Scots were likely to have the surplus barley that could be spared for distillation, so she decides for Scotland. I think that she is right, as in the Middle Ages Scotland enjoyed a long-standing political alliance with France, where distillation technology was developed,whereas Ireland did not

Yet her advice on the difficulties and dangers of distillation is apt, explaining  the toxic chemicals that have to be eliminated from the final spirit, information that is relevant to those tempted to illegal unlicensed distillation or the now illegal freeze distillation method perfected by early American colonists. I notice that nowhere does she mention the illegal Irish spirit,poteen. 

Her knowledge extends to myths concerning the creation of some of the culture around various drinks. She cite the case of the cocktail Moscow Mule, which is composed of vodka and ginger and drunk from copper mugs. Traditional Russian? No way, says Amy. It was concocted  by an American  bartender  who wanted to sell more vodka and ginger  and whose lady friend ran a business making copper mugs. 

Amy Stewart's knowledge extends to the origin of terms connected with drink. Many of us have heard the phrase Dutch Courage, the bravado gained by imbibing drink,  and have wondered how it originated. Amy tells us. It seems that English troops sent to support the Dutch in their fight for independence from Spain took strong spirits such as Aquavit before battle, and the English attributed the Dutch' ferocious courage to the drink,hence the term. The  English did the same with the Irish,attributing their fighting fury to poteen, which was a reason for its being banned. Not that that stopped the Irish making it!    



A reference book that can be read as light reading, yet still be thoroughly informative, is rare, and this book is something to be dipped into for enjoyment and used by home brewers as a reference work to which they can go if they want to experiment. A horticulturalist set upon establishing a brewers' garden would be well advised to take and keep a copy of the Drunken Botanist as a valuable research resource. I recommend this book to readers, in the confidence that they will not be disappointed. 


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Updated: 01/30/2020, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 01/31/2020

Good to hear from you, Derdriu. Any spirit distilled without a licence is illegal, but no specific Cornish and Welsh spirits fall into this category. Illegal vodka is common.

I haven't read Wicked Plants.

There is a monkey puzzle tree growing in a garden near where I live, but I think it too large for an urban garden.It is taller than the house.

DerdriuMarriner on 01/31/2020

frankbeswick, Thank you for the practicalities and products.
What other drinks - Cornish? Welsh? - do you know of as illegal?
I have the book too. Have you read the author's Wicked Plants?
Me too, I noticed the monkey puzzle tree since I remember its Brazilian counterpart and since there's one growing about 40-some miles away.

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