Sake began with a grain of rice. Scotch emerged from barley, tequila from agave, rum from sugarcane, bourbon from corn. The new book The Drunken Botanist explores the dizzying array of herbs, flowers, trees, fruits and fungi that humans have, through ingenuity and sometimes desperation, transformed into alcohol over the centuries.
Drawing on selections from that book in the following slides, we single out the plants hidden inside some of our most well-loved cocktails.
A relative of asparagus, hostas, and hyacinths, this Mexican native is transformed into tequila by chopping away the tough, spiny leaves and slowly roasting the heart. By law, tequila can only be made from A. tequilana ‘Weber Blue,’ a cultivar named after a French military physician and part-time botanist who was sent to Mexico under Napoleon III. He was the first to describe the plant in botanical literature.
Native to India and Southeast Asia, limes contain half the sugar of lemons and more rich, floral flavor molecules. A ripe lime is actually yellowish in color; they have to be picked slightly unripe to appear green in the grocery store.
The base alcohol in many orange liqueurs is distilled from sugar beets. The reason dates back to the Napoleonic wars, when blockades against the British made sugarcane scarce throughout Europe.
This classic New Orleans cocktail is the perfect gateway drink for anyone unaccustomed to licorice-flavored cocktails. And, if you use pastis, the licorice flavor comes from star anise (Illicium verum).
The trees grow in China, Vietnam, and Japan. Japanese star anise (Illicium anisatum), a close relative, is severely toxic and has poisoned people who picked it by mistake, so it would be unwise to harvest this one in the wild.
1 sugar cube
2 to 3 dashes Peychaud's bitters
1 1/2 ounces Sazerac rye or another rye whiskey
1/4 ounce Herbsaint, absinthe, or pastis
This drink requires a somewhat showy technique, but it's worth learning: Fill an Old-Fashioned glass with ice to get it cold. In a second Old-Fashioned glass, muddle the sugar cube and bitters, and then add the rye. Pick up the first glass, toss the ice into the sink, then swirl the Herbsaint around the glass and toss it out as well. Pour the rye mixture into the Herbsaint-coated glass and garnish with lemon peel.
Thanks to the heroic efforts of tourists returning from Cuba with sprigs of mint plucked from their mojitos, mail order nurseries now offer "Mojito Mint," which they claim is distinctly different from most spearmints. "In a perhaps typically Cuban understated way its warm embrace lingers until you realize you want more," reads the catalog copy for this herb.
Ginger might not look like much—it rarely blooms, instead producing only green, reedy stalks three to four feet tall with strappy leaves—but its root is one of the world’s oldest spices. A native of China and India, ginger was an important part of ancient Chinese medicine and was adopted for medicinal use in Europe after arriving on the earliest trading routes. It has been used to flavor beer since the Middle Ages and adds a note of heat and spiciness to herbal liqueurs, bitters, and vermouth. Domaine de Canton, Snap, and the King’s Ginger are just a few modern liqueurs that add a bite of ginger to cocktails.
The Moscow Mule, invented in 1941 by a vodka distributor, not only put ginger beer to good use but also introduced Americans to vodka, helping sales of Smirnoff triple in just a few years. It is traditionally served in a copper mug, but this is merely a marketing gimmick. The story goes that a vodka distributor and a bartender concocted this drink to make use of the bartender’s unsold ginger beer and to jump-start vodka sales. Apparently the bartender’s girlfriend owned a company that manufactured copper mugs, so her product became part of the recipe, too.
11⁄2 ounces vodka
1 teaspoon simple syrup (optional)
1 bottle ginger beer (Try Reed’s or another natural, not-too-sweet ginger soda)
Grains of Paradise
A common gin ingredient, this West African ginger relative produces tiny, spicy seeds. It has flavored spirits and beers for centuries, but it’s also a staple food of western lowland gorillas. Zookeepers discovered that without this vital food source, captive gorillas developed heart disease.
A relative of jasmine, lilac, and garden sage, olives have been cultivated in the Mediterranean for seven thousand years, and individual trees live to be hundreds of years old.
This variation on the classic sidecar replaces lemon juice with blood orange juice. Feel free to adjust the proportions to taste.
Its Angostura bitters come from a little-known plant in the mixologist's garden: gentian. Without this tall yellow flower that grows wild in French alpine meadows, any number of classic cocktails would not exist. The Manhattan, the Negroni, and the Old-Fashioned all rely on the bitterness of gentian. Angostura bitters, a staple ingredient found in even the most poorly stocked bars, contains gentian and even broadcasts that fact on the label. Many of the most famous European amaros and liqueurs set aside their secrecy and plainly claim gentian as a key ingredient. Campari, Aperol, Suze, Amaro Averna, and the aptly named Gentiane are just a few of the hundreds of spirits that depend on this plant for bitterness.
1 1/2 ounces Cognac or brandy
3/4 ounce blood orange juice
1/2 ounce Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur (or another citrus liqueur like triple sec)
Dash of Angostura bitters
Shake all the ingredients except the bitters over ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Add a dash of bitters on top.
As oak trees mature, the older vessels become plugged with crystalline structures called tyloses. As a result, the center of the tree—the heartwood—doesn’t conduct water at all, making it well-suited for use as a watertight barrel. Whiskey gets an astonishing array of flavors from the barrel. American white oak produces the same flavor molecules found in vanilla, coconut, peach, apricot, and cloves.
Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!