Drunken plant history

If Amy Stewart and Martha Stewart were pitted against one another, it'd likely be a formidable fight, but in the end, my money's on Amy. Martha would lash out with spatulas and high-flow frosting bags, but then Amy would present her with a seemingly innocuous and alluring tincture that turns out to be poison. Or alcohol. With Amy, you never know.

The Humboldt County science writer has enjoyed several years on The New York Times Best Sellers list, first for her book Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities (Algonquin Books, $18.95) and again this year with her intemperate tome Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World's Great Drinks (Algonquin Books; $19.95).

At 9:45 a.m. on August 22—deep in the midst of Midtown Cocktail Week—Stewart waited patiently at the back of a Citizen Hotel conference room as a stream of severely hungover industry professionals trickled in and struggled to assume the least nausea-inducing position resembling upright. Some wore sunglasses to keep the florescent overhead lights at bay, and others gripped tall Bloody Mary drinks from the Grange Restaurant & Bar's Cocktail Week Bloody Mary bar—conveniently located within stumbling distance one floor down.

After a cursory introduction, Stewart took her place in the front before a painfully bright projection screen, and smiled out at the squinting audience.

“Good morning! So brave of you to be here at 10 a.m.,” she said chidingly.

The Drunken Botanist is an easy and fascinating read, drawing equal enthusiasm from drinkers, bartenders and gardeners alike—all of whom were represented equally here. On this day, the presentation mostly covered material pulled from the book, focusing on some unusual points which Stewart transformed into the driest of comedic gems.

“If you guys are interested in the lives of botanists who suffered horribly and died bizarre, nightmarish deaths for their careers,” she said with a smile, “then you should read The Collector about David Douglas. … Many horrible things befell him as he did his work, and he ended up dying a strange and gruesome death in Hawaii. So …”

This aside transitioned smartly into an anecdote germane to the larger theme. Portland, Oregon's Clear Creek Distillery, she informed, created a vibrant green and woodsy Douglas Fir eaux de vie that took distiller Steve McCarthy 10 years to perfect. After years of trial and error, McCarthy finally chose to perform the infusions on site in the forest, rather than in the distillery for the purest results.

The conversation then moved to the varieties of “bar gardens” used for decoration, fresh cocktail garnishes and infusions. Indoor bar gardens can be cultivated, Stewart said, but it's a little more complicated.

“I live in Humboldt County, so I have some expertise on indoor growing,” she cracked. “You can do ‘pretty' indoor growing, but you can also do closet or basement or hydroponic production of herbs and tomatoes and stuff like that for your drinks … but we'll save that for another day.”