Amy Stewart's The Drunken Botanist (Algonquin, 400 pages, $19.95) is a quirky exploration of the plants behind every drink menu. Part field guide for invested gardeners or bartenders, part 1,000 things you never knew you drank, this coffee-table book of ingestible knowledge ranges from historical to horticultural. We get information as disparate as the basics of beer to a guide about how to brine your own martini olives punctuated by an A-to-Z listing of plants.
Like a strong drink, The Drunken Botanist should be sipped not gulped. Consumed at the appropriate pace, it's an endearing encyclopedia of random knowledge about plants and alcohol that actually make sense to non-gardeners. The quips help, too: "Like most strange and unusual things in the natural world, the red pigment [from scale bugs] found its way into Italian liqueurs." Unfortunately, as with so many cutesy approaches to information, excessive tweedom does eventually take a toll.
But Stewart deftly avoids becoming an oenophile's bible of pompous terms. Instead, she includes topics like sake nomenclature, how to make rum, and a profile of Betula papyrifera (the birch tree) in a tone that makes botany badass. My personal favorites: horny corn and drunken Australian fowl. Stewart explains corn's alluring transformation to bourbon, even as she makes the cobbed form less appetizing by explaining that its husk strings are fallopian tubes. As for the birds, we learn about drunken lorikeets, who get tipsy on wild-fermented eucalyptus nectar until ornithologists take them to an avian drunk tank.
It's not all birds and bees, as Stewart also gives plenty of tips for humans. Less brightly plumed than the lorikeets, Northwestern drinkers can achieve a similar buzz with The Drunken Botanist's 52 drink recipes, including Peru's national cocktail, the pisco sour. Most are simple concoctions with few ingredients, but you can go all in and make your own grenadine if so inclined (recipe on page 338, success not guaranteed). There are also tips on how to best imbibe: For the perfect pastis, an anise-flavored apéritif, Stewart recommends traveling to Paris. Thankfully, her discussions of how ales differ from lagers and how sorghum can be distilled into liquor can be enjoyed from your couch.
Tackling a topic that can be dull as dirt, The Drunken Botanist manages to be a smartly addicting mix of coffee-table book and botanical field guide. It does run the risk of creating more obnoxiously overinformed drink nerds to avoid at the next holiday mixer. Here's hoping the bar is well-stocked.
GO: Amy Stewart is at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651, on Wednesday, March 27. 7:30 pm. Free.