Tribune Print Share Text

What came first, the gin or the tonic?

The Drunken Botanist explores the roots of alcoholic beverages

Created date

June 25th, 2013
The Drunken Botanist, by Amy Stewart

Tequila starts with the agave plant. Rum starts with sugarcane. And then there’s gin, which is made from a potent combination of juniper berries and botanicals like lavender, fennel, and coriander. Virtually all libations start with something that grows, and in her book, The Drunken Botanist (Algonquin Books), Amy Stewart offers a fascinating “plant’s-eye perspective on booze.”

Starting with an alphabetical dictionary of plants that are distilled or fermented into alcohol, The Drunken Botanist explores the trials and errors our forefathers went through to turn plants into spirits. Stewart says her intention was to “supply a little history, a little horticulture, and even some agricultural advice for those of you who want to grow your own.”

“If you’re a gardener, I hope this book inspires a cocktail party,” she says. “If you’re a bartender, I hope you’re persuaded to put up a greenhouse or at least plant a window box.”

50-plus recipes

Beyond a history and a botany lesson, The Drunken Botanist includes over 50 recipes sure to excite cocktail lovers. In the same way foodies discovered the wonders of artisanal chocolate or salt, mixologists will rejoice at the rediscovery of true grenadine. The popular red syrup that’s sold in supermarkets is nothing like the pomegranate juice sweetener French cafés served in the 1880s. Alas, the heyday of true grenadine was short-lived as overly sweet, artificial versions of the pomegranate-based syrup were enormously popular by the turn of the century. As one reporter described it, “The syrup and the fruit from which it took its name were total strangers.”

In an effort to right the wrong of over a century of “fake” grenadine, The Drunken Botanist includes a simple and delicious recipe that is sure to be a revelation for anyone who has only tasted that commercial red syrup. The next time you’re mixing up a tequila sunrise or a Shirley Temple, try this homemade version of grenadine and taste for yourself the wonders of the real thing.

Homemade grenadine


5 to 6 fresh pomegranates

1 to 2 cups of sugar

1 oz vodka


To peel the pomegranates, score the rind with a knife as if you’re cutting an orange into wedges. Carefully peel away the rind, leaving the seeds and membrane intact. Squeeze with a fruit press or a manual juicer and filter through a sieve. You should have about 2 cups of juice.

Measure 1 cup of the sugar into a saucepan, add the juice, stir, and bring to a simmer. Let the sugar cool and taste it; add more sugar if you prefer a sweeter syrup. Stir in the vodka as a preservative. Pour into a clean jar and store it in the refrigerator, where it will last about a month, or in the freezer. Adding another ounce or two of vodka will help keep it from freezing.

(Note: Stewart cautions that “even replacing the fresh juice with bottled compromises the flavor.” When the fruit is in season, it is well worth spending an hour or so in the kitchen to make a batch and freeze it.)