Geeking out at Tales of the Cocktail

It may sound a little nerdy or bookish to admit this, but I learned so much at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail last week in New Orleans. It sounds nerdy because the 20,000 bartenders and industry folks also attending were usually on their 3rddrink by noon, while I was sipping slowly on ice water. Normally, I’d be joining in the fun, but with a bun in the oven I was on the sidelines, a good sober place to watch the revelry and learn about this awesome cocktail culture we have raging across the U.S.

I was there with Andy and Laurie Quady and Dana Fares, our newly appointed Company Mixologist. I’ll start with the first seminar we attended, the Drunken Botanist, presented by Amy Stewart, author of the forthcoming book by the same name, and Eric Seed, founder of Haus Alpens, importer of fine aperitifs.

Amy Stewart is a celebrity in the botany world, featured in the PBS documentary, The Botany of Desire, NPR, and Good Morning America. She’s also the author of six books, including Wicked Plants and has a great blog, Garden Rant.

Amy unearthed awesome historical and cultural connections between botany and booze. As a scientist, Amy describes her world as one in which one plant at a time is examined for very specific purposes. This means that there is still so much we don’t know about most of the plants in the world. Exciting!

Amy’s desire is to bridge the gap between botany, horticulture, and alcohol, not only for the good of the horticulture and the drink industries, but for bio-diversity. She told the story of Don Garibaldi from Año Nuevo in California, the last remaining commercial grower of sweet violets in the U.S. Sweet Violets aren’t the most logical thing to grow because they wilt quickly so most commercial growers steer clear of them. The Garibaldi’s have a tradition of growing them, but find the market limited. These plants are used to make violet liquer, and have ephemeral flowers. The scientific name is Viola oderada.

But, before jumping into the violet liquer business, consider Amy’s next fact – some plants, including sweet violet, cilantro, and cascade hops aren’t appreciated by a minority of the population because for genetic reasons some people can’t taste all of the flavors. These plants have floral compounds that mask bad flavors: various aldehyds, and myrcene. The condition is called Specific Anosmia and 1-4% of the population experiences it. I’m grateful to not be in the minority, but it makes me wonder what other flavors I’m experiencing differently than so many other people. Everyone’s tastes are different and there’s no way of knowing how another tastes.

Then there are poisonous plants, which have a long history in the cocktail world as well as the medicinal world. Opium poppies were used to make laudanum and King George was known for putting some in his brandy every night. Considering that the goal of plants is not to be eaten, it’s surprising that all plants aren’t poisonous.

Yellow Gentian is a fascinating medicinal plant. – It’s relatives include the strychnine tree, coffee, guanine, and centaury. Gentian was used by the Greeks, in traditional medicine in Latin America, and in China going back 2000 years! If you’ve ever tried Moxie, you’ve had gentian soda.

Gentian is currently being researched for it’s anti-malarial properties. The plants grow to 4-5 years of age before harvesting and the roots weigh several pounds. Sadly, the wild plants are threatened due to overharvesting. But, Gentian is cultivated in France and Germany. So, reach for farmed Gentian instead.

I could go on with the insights coming out of this lecture – but you may just want to buy the book because she relates it much better than I can.

I’ll have to follow up with another post on the other seminars we attended – Aperitif Culture in Italy, Making your own vermouth, and New world vermouth. I also have to describe the Quady events and my Dad’s participation in the New World Vermouth seminar next to the other vermouth makers.

A bién tot!

Allie Quady

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