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Book Review: The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart (3/5)

21 Jul

One of my librarian friends, in an effort to bring more writers to the library, book Amy Stewart for a virtual visit almost two years ago. Since then, I’ve tried twice in vain to read The Drunken Botanist as an ebook, both times finding the PDFs of the pages unreadable on my phone. Alas. But now there is Hoopla and a new crop of audiobooks for me to indulge in including The Drunken Botanist. I got right to it.

Stewart_DB_USA_POB_03_28_13.inddThe Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks by Amy Stewart

Summary from Goodreads:

Every great drink starts with a plant. Sake began with a grain of rice. Scotch emerged from barley. Gin was born from a conifer shrub when a Dutch physician added oil of juniper to a clear spirit, believing that juniper berries would cure kidney disorders. “The Drunken Botanist” uncovers the enlightening botanical history and the fascinating science and chemistry of over 150 plants, flowers, trees, and fruits (and even one fungus).

Some of the most extraordinary and obscure plants have been fermented and distilled, and they each represent a unique cultural contribution to our global drinking traditions and our history. Molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence: when the British forced the colonies to buy British (not French) molasses for their New World rum-making, the settlers outrage kindled the American Revolution. Rye, which turns up in countless spirits, is vulnerable to ergot, which contains a precursor to LSD, and some historians have speculated that the Salem witch trials occurred because girls poisoned by ergot had seizures that made townspeople think they d been bewitched. Then there’s the tale of the thirty-year court battle that took place over the trademarking of Angostura bitters, which may or may not actually contain bark from the Angostura tree.

I think this was an odd choice to make an audiobook from. The book is non-fiction in a very ‘encyclopedia-esque’ style. Stewart has organized the book well, focusing on plants in different parts of the path from farm to drink and giving scientific names as well as some great recipes. Honestly, I wished I had this as a coffee table book instead of an audiobook. I’d love to go back to the recipes for a girl’s night and see the beautiful formatting that I saw when I flipped through the book at the library. It was very thorough and made me appreciate the process going into the drinks I have but I think it would have been better in small doses and might have earned a higher rating from me if I read it that way.


I thought the base plants part was most interesting. I loved hearing about how agave is made into tequila and how barley becomes beer. For me, this was most interesting. Hearing about the one or two distilleries who are using jasmine just made me realize I don’t care enough to buy super premium specialty liquor and I’d rather get back to what’s in Maker’s Mark and other things I might actually drink.

This book made me want to start a fruit garden for sure. I’m hoping that if I ever do get a house, I can grow some of my own fruit and maybe I’ll try the vodka infusions Stewart wrote about (those seem the easiest to make). I did feel a lot of the things she spoke about growing were very specialized and she even recognized that some are not easily grown outside of a very specific region and some required extensive care. Unfortunately, not the best for a busy working person also going to school in a Michigan apartment.

Amy Stewart Image via the author's website

Amy Stewart
Image via the author’s website

The cocktails made me want a drink each time I heard one. After craving ice cream during another book and craving a drink during this one, my books have been influencing my calorie counts a lot lately! I wonder how many of the recipes are available on the website and how many I’ll have to copy out of the book the next time I go to the library.

I’m not a gin drinker and it was obvious to me that Stewart loves a good gin. She’d probably tell me I’ve never had good gin. I found these parts a bit of a drag only because I cared a bit less. They were still well written and enjoyable for the small anecdotes Stewart added.

The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Coleen Marlo. I wasn’t a big fan of Marlo’s inflections, trying to add feeling to a nonfiction book in, what I felt were the wrong places. (Side note: do you say CASHew or caSHEW? This bothered me and I wonder if it’s regional.) Overall, she was fine but having met Stewart (kinda), I had her voice in my head and felt Marlo was a disappointment.


Writer’s Takeaway: I think this was more of a reference book and I liked that even though it was structured like that, it was able to be read as a narrative and there were enough stories about the history of the plants for it to stay interesting and relevant. Keeping things interesting is never bad and can make a dull format lively enough to be read aloud like a story. It was a good technique.

Enjoyable, but I think I would have liked it better in another format. Three out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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Related Posts:
The Drunken Botanist Website
The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart | Maria Legault
Review & Giveaway: The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart | The Intoxicologist