The Botany of the Bar
The cocktail craze has mixologists vying to see who can craft the most memorable beverage—one that will inspire guests to share the latest and greatest bar buzz with all their friends. But concocting a cocktail that captures the right amount of conversation takes more than innovative ingredients—it takes a great story.
In one or two sentences even the most alluring cocktail can be adequately eulogized, and then the conversation moves on. Not so if there’s a funny story or fascinating fact attached to the cocktail. Enter The Drunken Botanist, a witty repertoire of scientific trivia, beverage art, and enticing recipes. It’s quite possibly summer’s best beach read, and most assuredly a bar scene keeper.
Author Amy Stewart, who writes passionately about the risks and rewards of the natural world, including three New York Times bestsellers—Wicked Bugs, Wicked Plants, and Flower Confidential—says one of the most important things The Drunken Botanist does for bartenders and restaurateurs is introduce new ways that diners may talk about the drinks they’ve enjoyed and their experience in the restaurant.
“People love to talk with bartenders and the information in this book will help improve the bartender’s engagement with customers,” says Stewart.
When a bartender can suggest guests try something new and tell a story behind the plant that created the beverage, then it becomes a memorable event. “People love to repeat stories—that’s why tasting rooms work so well in wineries,” continues Stewart.
And the storytelling doesn’t have to stop with the bartender—armed with interesting details about the botany behind the bar, the restaurant’s wait staff might also share creative and entertaining tales that quench guests’ thirst for knowledge.
For instance, The Drunken Botanist teaches: “Gin is really nothing more than a flavored vodka whose predominant flavor is juniper” and includes a history on juniper and various types of gin, as well as advice for what to do and not to do when serving a classic martini. “A martini should be a small drink served cold in a small glass.” Large pours of several ounces of gin leave drinkers sipping a warm, less-than-satisfying drink.
But it’s not just about cocktails—the book has interesting tidbits on beer as well, such as the fact that beer is not made from hops, just flavored with hops. But interestingly, beer can be made from bananas. At least, beer can be made from the “beer bananas” of Uganda and Rwanda.
The book also presents different and unexpected ways to mingle natural elements. “It will help bartenders better understand how to combine flavors,” says Stewart. “Like when you understand that caraway, fennel, and cumin are closely related then you can come up with better combinations.’
She also notes that many restaurants are growing their own herbs and plants in gardens for the bar—in fact, Stewart is presenting a session at the annual Tales of the Cocktail conference this month on that very subject.
“I really want bartenders to see and understand botanicals as plants, not just ingredients,” she says. “And know that they don’t just come from a box or spice shop. The cocktail-geek culture sees plants as more than just ingredients. This kind of thinking [about ingredients] started with chefs, but it’s moved from the kitchen into the bar and it’s the up and coming way to approach beverages.”
Echoing the farm-to-table movement that has motivated local sourcing throughout the culinary world, bartenders are increasingly sourcing botanicals from neighboring growers. “Some plants and trees are certainly worth growing yourself at the restaurant,” notes Stewart. “There’s almost no excuse not to grow your own mint.”
It also enhances the conversation when a bartender in Charleston can say that his Grilled Peach Old Fashioned is crafted from fruit grown in a local South Carolina orchard.
From researching and writing her book, Stewart sees a number of trends on the horizon. “More and more bars are working in close coordination with kitchens to create house-made spirits,” she observes. “In nicer bars, we’re seeing more batches of house-made vermouth, which is wonderful on its own and is a lovely before-dinner drink that stimulates the appetite.”
House-made garnishes, such as fresh pickles or seasonal herbs, are also popular—and anything that is house-made becomes a great conversation piece.
“When you are dealing with the public, you realize people are mostly all interested in the same kinds of things—so just identify a dozen or so talking points that work well and you can tell the same stories over and over to different guests,” advises Stewart.