BOOK REVIEW: The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart

The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World's Great DrinksThe Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks by Amy Stewart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book is about how plants are used in the making of alcoholic beverages from vegetative matter that serves as the primary ingredient in fermentation to obscure herbs and berries used to lend subtle flavoring. The book covers a lot of ground, being at once a guide to the chemistry of fermentation and distillation, a mixologist’s recipe book, and a guide to growing the plants used to make booze.

I will admit, if I weren’t such a neophyte to both subjects at hand – botany and alcoholic beverages – I probably wouldn’t have rated this book so highly. For me, almost every page offered new fun facts about alcoholic beverages, some of which I’ve consumed and many of which I never have. So if you have a high degree of understanding about one or both of these subjects, you may not find the book as intensely satisfying. Also, at times the book comes off a bit pretentiously – hardcore drunks probably don’t want to be shackled with so many rules for optimal alcoholic consumption (e.g. what type of glass they should drink a given drink from, etc.), but hardcore drunks are probably not a huge readership demographic. (It should also be noted that the reader gets some knowledge to fight pretentiousness as well, such as against gin drinkers who say they would never drink vodka when, in fact, they are drinking juniper berry-flavored vodka.)

The book consists of three parts. The first part describes fermentation and distillation and then offers two sub-parts dealing with the most everyday bases for alcoholic drinks (e.g. corn, grapes, potato, and wheat) as well as some of the more obscure and unusual objects of fermentation, respectively.

The second part delves into the plants that are added for flavoring or the like, and these are organized by: 1.) herbs and spices, 2.) flowers, 3.) trees, 4.) fruit, and 5.) nuts and seeds.

The final part gives some guidance on how some of these plants can be grown. It should be noted that this section is a bit thinner because a lot of information on growing the plants is covered in side-bars in the earlier sections and also this isn’t the book’s main thrust. The third part is similarly divided up between herbs, flowers, trees, berries & vines, and fruits & vegetables.

There are quite a few graphics, mostly in the form of line drawings, throughout the book – some are purely aesthetic and others are informative (e.g. drawings of plants.) There is also a recommended reading section that proposes further books to expand one’s understanding at the nexus of booze and plants. The book presents a lot of material in text boxes that set the information aside. These boxes include recipes, but also insights into how to best grow these plants with particularly emphasis given to how the process is optimized for those growing for beverage production (e.g. sometimes the optimal variety isn’t the most common variety.)

I enjoyed this book. It was readable, full of fun bits of information, and written in a light-hearted style. If you’re looking for a book on plants and alcoholic beverages, this is a good starting point. It doesn’t get too deep in the weeds but yet offers some obscure but amusing factoids.

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Drunk, Narcissist, or Buddha: What Kind of Writer Are You?

IMG_0173I read a story in The Guardian the other day entitled “What drives writers to drink?”  It was actually an edited excerpt from a book by Olivia Laing entitled The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink.

I found this piece fascinating despite the fact that the title question seemed readily answered with another question, “In what other occupation must one regularly, repeatedly, and thoroughly get punched in the soul in order to succeed?” Writing is a personal act, and no piece of writing that is read escapes the assault of criticism, invited and uninvited, which ranges from sagacious to ridiculous.

One somehow has to find the courage to wade through what feels a lot like attacks on one’s intellectual self in order to discover what is useful and what is not. If one summarily rejects all criticism and advice, one will neither grow nor is one likely to be published. If one accepts all criticism as having merit, one may find a psychiatric ward in one’s future–and one is likely to remain unpublished. So the trick is to be able to answer the question, “What within this writing is genuinely bad?”

The problem is that it feels like the question is, “What about me is flawed?” It’s like holding a mirror up to the core of one’s being and noticing that you have some rot.

How do writers do this? There are probably innumerable approaches, but three common ones come to mind. The first is the one thoroughly addressed in Laing’s book; that is, some writers self-medicate. The article references a quote by Tennessee Williams, “…you felt as if a new kind of blood had been transfused into your arteries, a blood that swept away all anxiety and all tension for a while, and for a while is the stuff that dreams are made of.”

A second unhealthy approach is to reject any assertion that contradicts one’s perfection. In other words, be a narcissist. These are the writers who meet each and every piece of criticism with statements like, “you just don’t understand what I was trying to do there, my misspelling was actually a clever commentary on the zeitgeist of 20th century Armenia.”

The narcissists have the advantage not becoming clinically depressed by the constant rejection and criticism that is a life of writing. The downside is that they have to live in a world in which everyone else on the planet is ignorant and incapable of recognizing brilliance when it’s shining in their faces, and that is depressing in its own way. Only a few in this group manage to get published, and they do so through a combination of being truly great and, at least early on, being willing to tarnish their awesomeness by accepting some editorial suggestions.

The third approach is the one that we should all aspire to, but it’s a bitch getting there. In the title I used “Buddha” as a code word for the enlightened approach. What is the enlightened approach to dealing with rejection and criticism? First, one must realize that equating one’s writing and one’s self is illusory, and that criticism of one’s work isn’t criticism of self. Before any writer gets to the point of submitting works to agents, editors, or publishers someone along the line has told one that one’s writing is good. This fatal compliment causes one’s self-worth to become entangled in one’s writing.

Second, one must develop a confidence that isn’t rooted in external validation. In less pretentious words, one mustn’t feel it necessary to be loved by everyone with whom one comes into contact. This is hell if one’s entire life is writing. The value of published writing is inseparable from how it’s received. My only suggestion on this point is to find something else in one’s life that allows one to build self-confidence. For me, this has been martial arts. Sure there are usually rank tests, which are about validation from one’s teacher. However, what it really comes down is whether one experiences success in training and sparring. If one sees some success, the rank starts to be irrelevant to one’s confidence. I think outdoorsmanship is another such skill– for those less scared of bears than being beaten ugly with a stick. There are few activities in which other’s evaluation of one is ultimately irrelevant, but those are the activities with which one should seek to balance one’s writing.

If anyone needs me I’ll be guzzling Bourbon and contemplating how the publishing industry is run by poop-weasels.