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When you peruse the shelves at your local liquor store you probably don’t think much about plants. Author and gardener Amy Stewart does, and can link each spirit you’d find there back to its genus, origin and history in drink. We talk to Stewart and D.C. bartender Owen Thomson about the botanical elements in some favorite cocktails, obvious and unexpected alike.
- Owen Thomson beverage director, RANGE; President, D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild
- Amy Stewart author, "The Drunken Botanist"; co-creator, "Garden Rant" blog; contributing editor, "Fine Gardening" magazine
Amy Stewart’s Cocktail Garden
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks” by Amy Stewart. Copyright © 2013 by Amy Stewart. With permission of Algonquin Books.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. If I ran into you on a Saturday night while you were enjoying a round of drinks with your friends and asked you to name the plants that make up your gin and tonic, could you? You'd no doubt get the garnish, a wedge of lime. And maybe some of the botanicals that flavor the gin, like juniper and citrus, but you might be stumped by the quinine in the tonic, which comes from the bark of the cinchona tree. This is what separates the average person's night out on this town from Amy Stewart's. Instead of having a little more than a hangover to show for her trips to the local bar and liquor store, she's got a book, "The Drunken Botanist."
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd where some might look at a pile of peppers and herbs and see lunch, bartender Owen Thomson sees ingredients for the hell fire bitters that give his cocktails extra kick. Here to talk about the botanicals behind your favorite cocktail ingredients are the aforementioned Amy Stewart. She is the author of six books, the latest of which is "The Drunken Botanist." She's also the cofounder of the popular blog, Garden Rant, and a contributing editor at Fine Gardening Magazine. Amy Stewart thank you for joining us.
MS. AMY STEWARTWell, thank you. Good to be here.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Owen Thomson. He is the beverage director at Range, in Friendship Heights. He's also a founding member and acting president of the D.C. Craft Bartenders' Guild. Owen Thomson, thank you for joining us.
MR. OWEN THOMSONGlad to be here.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join the conversation. Do you have a favorite cocktail you'd like to learn more about the plant-based origins of? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Amy, let's start with a mixed drink that doesn't have any liquor in it, the Shirley Temple, which makes many kids feel very grown up when they go out to dinner. Two of the main ingredients, cherries and Grenadine. The cherry plant connection is pretty obvious, but the ones you find in drinks don't always much look like fresh ones. What gives them that color?
STEWARTRight. So Grenadine is actually made from pomegranates. And it should be made from pomegranates. Good Grenadine is actually made from pomegranate juice. I actually make my own every winter when pomegranates are in season, which they are right now, and keep it in a mason jar in the freezer so I can get through a year with real Grenadine. It's an amazing cocktail ingredient if you do it right.
NNAMDIHow about the cherries?
STEWARTWell, so cherries, the sort of modern American maraschino cherry is really sort of a monstrosity. You know, they leach out all the color and all the flavor and add it back in artificially with artificial, you know, with red dye, and with artificial flavoring to make it taste like a cherry. So there again, you can get the real thing, which is very often a sour, European cherry soaked in real cherry liquor. And that is a fantastic thing to add to a drink, but I am not a fan of the modern candy-flavored ones.
NNAMDIOwen, take us to the other end of the spectrum. While tequila is familiar enough to most Americans, its close relative Mezcal remains a bit of a mystery, but is becoming more readily available. What's the difference between the two in terms of both taste and in terms of how they're made?
THOMSONWell, the one primary difference is that the tequila is from a very specific varietal of agave, the blue Weber plant. Where as Mezcal can be made from any one of like 27 different varieties, commonly. Although, mostly espadin. But then the other big difference is the way that they treat the plants. With tequilas they'll roast them in ovens or autoclaves and then in Oaxaca they traditionally dig sort of big earthen pits and roast them over hot coals, which gives it this really like nice roasted, smoked flavor that, you know, is a little surprising to people sometimes, but I love.
NNAMDIYou have a particular affection to Mezcal. It's my understanding that you spent last summer making it. Where?
THOMSONI did. I was down in Oaxaca with the guys from Del Maguey and we toured all their five villages and spent time with the people who make it and got to participate a little bit. It was amazing.
NNAMDISame question to you, Amy, the difference?
STEWARTThe difference between the two? Well, it's really in how it's roasted. So, yeah, in addition to the varieties, you know, Mezcal gets roasted in these underground pits. And so it's smoky in the way that scotch is kind of -- it's peaty. I think people who love scotch should really take a look at Mezcal because they're really -- it's a really fine spirit that's got this wonderful, rich, meaty flavor. The plants are also mostly grown wild. They're not really cultivated in the same way that agave is cultivated for tequila.
STEWARTThat's a little bit more of a monoculture. So a lot of differences in how it's grown and in how it's made.
NNAMDIOwen, when you decide to create a cocktail that includes Mezcal, you might consider whether the imbiber is already a fan or a first-timer. How would you approach differently depending on who's drinking the finished product?
THOMSONYeah, I mean absolutely. We have a couple different Mezcal cocktails on the menu right now, as it is definitely one of my favorite spirits. And we keep some that heavily emphasize some of those like smoky, fiery, roasty characteristics for people who have already had a few Mezcal drinks and are fans. And then there are a few others where we're -- not that we're going to mask the flavors, but it's a much more smoothed out finished product. We might use some egg whites and grapefruit juice and a few other flavors that just sort of will make it easier for someone to get that introductory sip.
NNAMDIThat's the voice of Owen Thomson. He is the beverage directory at Range, in Friendship Heights, and a founding member and acting president of the D.C. Craft Bartenders' Guild. He joins us in studio, along with Amy Stewart. She is the author of six books. The latest of which is "The Drunken Botanist." She's also cofounder of the popular blog "Garden Rant," and a contributing editor at Fine Gardening Magazine. Want to join the conversation? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. How much do you think about where your drinks come from?
NNAMDIDo you care about the origins and quality of the botanical ingredients in your drinks? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Amy, rum is a tasty spirit with a dark history. How difficult is it to harvest the sugar cane to make it, even with today's modern equipment?
STEWARTYou know, it's amazing that sugar cane is, in some ways, still harvested the way it always was. I mean it is rough work. And when you think about Europeans bringing sugar cane to the Caribbean, you're out there in the very hot sun with these long machetes, chopping it down by hand. There's all sorts of vermin in the field. So there's snakes, and centipedes and…
NNAMDIBelieve me, I've experienced this personally (laugh) growing up in Guyana, which is a sugar cane growing country. Yes.
STEWARTThat's right. That's right. So awful work and horrible labor conditions. Now, today it may be a little more modern and done in a little bit more sustainable way, but, for instance, it's still common in some sugar cane growing areas to burn the fields afterwards. And that is, in part, to try to clear out the vermin so it's just safe to be there.
NNAMDIYes. We always knew to go into the field after the burning.
NNAMDI(laugh) Because you wouldn't run into critters there after the burning.
NNAMDIRum and mint are a popular pairing, but most notably in a Mojito. What are -- if you'll pardon the pun -- the roots of that combination?
STEWARTYeah, well, definitely, you know, a Cuban favorite and one that Hemingway enjoyed, along with the Daiquiri. And one that probably -- not just the mint, but also lime juice, you know, may really go back to early explorers. You know, we had naval ships with casks of rum on board as rations for sailors. And adding a little lime juice could help prevent scurvy.
STEWARTSo there's, you know, it's maybe not a health drink for us today, but there might have been a justification at one time for lime juice and rum. But the mint is really what makes it. And, you know, there's a special Cuban variety of mint called Mojito mint that is what they use in Havana and it has managed to escape into the nursery trade in North America via a little nefarious plant smuggling. So it's widely available now and you can do a very authentic Cuban Mojito.
NNAMDIOwen, you're using rum in a variety of ways right now. Ranging -- I've got so many puns. (laugh) Ranging at Range. Ranging from a drink that's blue to a coffee-flavored cocktail. How do you showcase the variety of flavors that rum can bring to the table?
THOMSONWell, rum's definitely one of the most interesting spirits out there because of how many different places it's produced in and the flavors are vast if anything. There's not a governing body for rum either, like there are in some -- like, for instance, we were talking about Mezcal and tequila, they have an organization basically dedicated to getting everybody on the same page and using some of the same standard methods. And rum really doesn't have that. so we're, you know, everything from the Agricole rums, which have a very like grassy style, flavor that people aren't familiar with to like the aged golden rums. You know, you just have a lot to work with.
NNAMDIYou've got at least three rum cocktails on the Range menu right now, right?
THOMSONWe do indeed.
NNAMDIHow are you using it or playing up the different flavors in the spirit?
THOMSONYou know, for instance, one that we really like is there's something called a Playground Meltdown, which is basically a coffee grog. We make a compound butter with all kinds of spices, mostly baking spices and honey. And we fat wash it into a gold rum from Santa Lucia. And then blend it with a New Orleans style coffee liquor which has the chickaree and everything, so, it just, it's a lot of fun.
NNAMDIIt sounds like a lot of fun. And I've had that rum in St. Lucia itself, so I know what it tastes like. Onto the telephones. Put on your headphones, please, because we're going to talk with Lars in Vienna, VA. Lars, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
LARSThank you, Kojo. I have a question. I've noticed an explosion of Tito's Vodka at a lot of local bars and restaurant in, I guess, in replacement of some of the other high-ends like Grey Goose and Belvedere. And I'm curious what they've done differently than the predecessors. It's a low cost vodka but it seems to have the flavor of some of the high ends. And I'll take the answer off the air. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you for your call. Owen, do you know?
THOMSONI can say that, for one, for us what we actually did when we put together our spirits list was something that I haven't seen done as commonly in my field. We tasted everything blind. So what the product was and the label and the marketing behind it was largely irrelevant to us. We didn't know what we were going to be ordering for our open order until we went back to the spreadsheet and we were like, oh, we selected vodkas, you know, seven, 32 and 16. Tito's did happen to be one of those and just taste-wise for us beat out a lot of its competitors.
STEWARTYeah, it's a corn -- it's a corn vodka from Austin. And, so, you know, I think people are loyal to Austin products and, you know, the whole made in Texas thing. But it is a lovely flavor. It's really -- I think it's surprisingly complex all on its own. So very popular, done really well.
NNAMDIThank you for your call. We got an email from Sylvia who said, "Would you, please, ask your guest about the Brazilian liquor Cachaca that has become available now." Know anything about that? Owen?
THOMSONWe do, indeed. We use that on our menu as well. Cachaca, we sort of briefly mentioned the Agricole rums which are made from the fresh press sugarcane juice instead of molasses. It is also done in that same style, which has to do with the native spirit of Brazil. It does have that sort of like a grassier, more vegetable characteristic to it. It's a really cool spirit. We have a drink on there that uses mango, lime and kummel which is another sort of...
STEWARTThat's good stuff.
NNAMDIAmy, while we might associate potatoes with vodka or juniper with gin, it's a pretty safe bet to say most people don't think of artichokes when they look in the liquor cabinet. What exactly is Cynar?
STEWARTWell, Cynar, if you're a fan of Campari, then I think you'll Cynar. It's sort of in that same family. It's this wonderful bitter, kind of Italian Amaro that works very well in, you know, Negronis and it's just a nice Campari alternative if you want to branch out a little bit.
NNAMDIOn to the phones again. Here now is Eric in Fairfax, VA. Eric, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
ERICHi. Thank you for taking my call. Good afternoon. My question was about Pimm's. I know that it's gin-based but I was wondering where the other flavors come from.
NNAMDIWhere do the other flavors in Pimm's come from, Owen?
THOMSONI'm not entirely sure of their exact breakdown on the recipe, but I do know they...
STEWARTYeah. Well, you know, there's a lot of secrecy around some of these formulas. But I think there's almost certainly some citrus in there and fenugreek is largely believed to be one of the flavors that gives it that round cola flavor. And fenugreek is actually used to make artificial maple syrup. So every now and then you'll hear reports in New York about the smell of a pancake house wafting over New York City. And it's a factory in New Jersey that uses fenugreek to make artificial maple syrup.
NNAMDISo this is a gin-based liqueur?
STEWARTIt's gin based and it's used to make the Pimm's cup very popular British sort of summer drink with a little bit of bitter lemonade maybe. Nice drink. And of course in England they do a variety of Pimm's, not just the gin based but also based on other spirits. But we can't get those here yet.
THOMSONWell, and some of them they no longer really produce. And that's why it's Pimm's number, number one was the gin based one. And each of the other numbers was based in a different spirit, whether it was whiskey or brandy or...
NNAMDIWell, Eric, thank you very much for your call. For a long time -- I want to ask you about this sweet drink, Owen, because it's apparently not really a sweet drink. Those who like sweet drinks will actually want to stay away from the chocolate Martini on your menu. What's actually in it?
THOMSONIt is actually a Chynar based cocktail. I had -- while we were putting range together I was working out of Bryan's other restaurant Volt and there was a regular couple who came in all the time and they would just ask me to make different drink and different drinks. And that, you know, it was really busy one night and I think she wanted to have her fun and just asked. You know, I really just feel like a chocolate Martini.
THOMSONAnd so I stared at what was in front of me and threw together this drink that was Chynar, a house-made orgeat a little bit of lime juice and brandy and it had the right look to it as well as having some kinds of notes that had that, like, sort of sweet or desserty-style drink but very far removed from a chocolate Martini.
NNAMDISo if you don't actually read the ingredients of the chocolate Martini when you're at Range and you order it, the possibility may be, even the likelihood is that you'll be sending it back.
THOMSONYou might be a little surprised, that's for sure. We always encourage people to actually read ingredients.
NNAMDIYeah, that would be a good idea. Amy, for a long time on a drink recipe called for bitters. The type was a foregone conclusion, the Angostura variety, what is Angostura and how has the sort of monopoly its makers have on the market changed?
STEWARTWell, Angostura bitters, you know, gosh, 150 years ago a lot of people made something called Angostura bitters with the bark of the angostura tree, which is from Venezuela. But what we now know today as Angostura bitters that says right there on the label that it contains no angostura bark, but it does contain gentian root, a bitter herb from Europe and a very highly secret blend of herbs and spices.
STEWARTBut it's very nice. It really adds, you know, if I make a drink at home that just doesn't feel quite complex and interesting enough, what it's missing is a dash of bitters. We're lucky now that there are so many people making extraordinary wonderful bitters that you no longer have to choose between angostura and maybe Peychaud's Bitters. You've got dozens. I have too many bottles of bitters at home, as a lot of people probably do.
NNAMDIWhen I was growing up in Guyana, Angostura bitters were associated only with Trinidad and Tobago. Is that still the case?
STEWARTThat's still where they're made and definitely known worldwide.
NNAMDIAngostura bitters. Owen, many of the drinks offered at Range include your homemade hell fire bitters. Without giving away the secret, what's in these hell fire bitters?
STEWARTWell, there's obviously a lot of different peppers and spices. We do use some other bittering agents, a little bit of the (word?), gentian, things like that to round out the flavor. But...
NNAMDIA lot of stuff.
THOMSONA lot of stuff, exactly.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Maybe he'll tell you the secret. Here is Norma in Arlington, VA. Norma, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
NORMAHi, I just want to talk about a little bit more about Cachaca. You just kind of went through it quickly. But there's a really terrific drink called the Caipirinha which is really well known all over Brazil and it's made with sugar, lime juice and Cachaca and it makes a terrific drink. I know a lot of people, a little bar put -- make it with sour just like they do Margarita, I think it's a spin. But the Cachaca and the lime juice are terrific together.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us. Amy, even in an increasingly global marketplace, there are some plant that are made into drinks in other countries that we are completely unaware of here in the US. How is sorghum used in other parts of the world?
STEWARTOh, you know, sorghum is actually my favorite plant in the book. And it's grown throughout Africa and through many parts of Asia. So in Africa, they make a sorghum beer. That's made at home. It's almost entirely just a homemade product. It's this cloudy, opaque beer, sort of low alcohol and it's actively fermenting. So you got to drink it when it's ready. And it's going to go south after three or four days.
STEWARTAnd I really fell in love with sorghum as kind of this underdog grain that feeds people in times of famine and that is so widely consumed in Africa and in Asia. There's a high proof spirit they make in China called Maotai. It's also made with sorghum. And you realize we here in North America, when we think about cocktail culture and drinking, we tend to think about North America and Europe.
STEWARTBut when you take Africa into account and when you take Asia into account, you realize the world is drinking plants that we almost never think of here at home.
NNAMDIA somewhat unusual liqueur you make use of, Owen, in a drink recipe is kummel. What does it taste like and how do you use it?
THOMSONWell, it is a mostly eastern European. It tends to be flavored with caraway, cumin, all those really heavy spice flavor. It's always tricky to work with because it can overtake the other flavors in the drink. But used correctly, just it adds a nice herbal, rounded note to a drink and a warmth that you wouldn't get otherwise.
STEWARTIt's kind of amazing. It's almost kind of rye bread because of that.
STEWARTYeah, yeah. You get that. It's such an unusual flavor to come across in a drink.
THOMSONAnd I think that's some of the fun ways that, you know, we probably look at things differently is that I'll see food and then go backwards in my head to liquors that I know have those same characteristics and those same plants. And, you know, you're coming from the plant side...
THOMSON...and seeing where they go, you know.
NNAMDIThat's -- they come from different sides but they meet at the same place, at the cocktail bar. Amy Stewart is the author of six books. She's the -- the latest of which is "The Drunken Botanist." She's also the co-founder of the popular blog, Garden Rant, and a contributing editor at Fine Gardening magazine. Amy, thank you for joining us.
STEWARTOh, thank you.
NNAMDIOwen Thomson is the beverage director at Range in Friendship Heights. He's also a founding member and acting president of the D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild. Owen, thank you for joining us.
THOMSONThank you very much.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening, I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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