The Botany of Booze

Sake began with a grain of rice. Scotch emerged from barley, tequila from agave, rum from sugarcane, bourbon from corn.

Mar 28, 2013 4:00 PMNov 20, 2019 9:59 PM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news
Photo Credits: lindsay.dee.bunny via Flickr

Juniper (Juniperus communis) Perhaps the most widely imbibed conifer on the planet, this ancient plant dates to the Triassic period. Juniper berries are actually tiny cones with fleshy scales that take two to three years to ripen. A single shrub can hold berries in all stages of ripeness, so they are harvested by spreading a tarp underneath and beating the plant with a stick to make the ripe cones fall off. By law, a spirit must contain some juniper to be called gin.

Grains of Paradise (Aframomum melegueta) 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.

Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) This silvery Mediterranean herb is best known as a flavoring in absinthe, but it is also used to add a note of bitterness to most vermouths. In fact, the word “vermouth” is derived from early forms of “wormwood”—and that name came from the belief that the plant could kill intestinal worms.

Olive (Olea europaea) 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.

Photo Credits: john.murden via Flickr

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.

12 lime 1^12 ounces vodka 1 teaspoon simple syrup (optional) 1 bottle ginger beer (Try Reed’s or another natural, not-too-sweet ginger soda)

Fill a copper mug or highball glass with ice. Squeeze the lime over the ice and drop it in the glass. Add the vodka and simple syrup, if desired, and fill the glass with ginger beer.

Photo Credits: bhenak via Flickr

Barley (Hordeum vulgare) Whether you drink your Manhattan with bourbon or rye, this grass is a key ingredient. The grain has been fermented since at least 3000 BC, for good reason: it is rich in enzymes that help break starch into fermentable sugar. To kick-start this process, the grains are dampened to force germination. As the embryo sprouts, those enzymes are activated to provide sugar for the seedling—or for the fermentation tank.

Oak (Quercus alba) 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.

Marasca Cherry (Prunus cerasus var. marasca) In the distant, boozy past, a maraschino cherry was not an artificially dyed and overly sweetened atrocity. It was a dense, dark, sour cherry called the marasca that grew particularly well in Croatia, around the town of Zadar. Fortunately, fine marasca cherries soaked in their own liqueur can still be found in specialty shops.

Photo Credits: Tom Ipri via Flickr

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.

Photo Credits: BrentOzar via Flickr

Agave (Agave tequilana) 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.

Key Lime (Citrus aurantifolia) 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.

Bitter Orange (Citrus aurantium) Triple sec and other orange liqueurs get their flavor from the rinds of oranges so bitter that only their peels can be used.

Sugar Beet (Beta vulgaris) 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.

Photo Credits: tnk_gn via Flickr

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.

Photo Credits: Carolyn Coles via Flickr

Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum) An enormous grass with origins in New Guinea, India, and China, sugarcane arrived in the Caribbean in the 1500s with European explorers. Although most rum today is made from cultivars with decidedly unromantic names like CP 70-1133, heirloom varieties sport vivid colors, wild stripes, and far more interesting names, like "Louisiana Purple" and "Yellow Caledonia."

Spearmint (Mentha spicata) 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.

Photo Credits: swanksalot via Flickr
1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.