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Plants meet liquor in Amy Stewart's The Drunken Botanist



Teetotalers of the Triangle, your moment has arrived. This is your chance to be a hero to friends who enjoy the occasional tipple.

After all, tonight's Drunken Botanist Cocktail Party, part of the Cooks and Books series at Fearrington Village, explicitly recommends that imbibers "(arrange) for a designated driver."

"Ha! That's cool," chuckles Amy Stewart, author of the best-selling The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World's Greatest Drinks, which is published by Chapel Hill-based Algonquin Books. "When you go to a reading with booze, that really is a very good idea."

Stewart has been on the road for several weeks­—presumably with a sober wheel man—to promote the new book, her sixth, which celebrates and enthusiastically recommends the delicious connections between the garden and the cocktail glass.

The book is divided into three parts, starting with an engagingly plainspoken study of the "alchemical process" behind the birth of wine, beer and spirits. She next considers the "wondrous assortment of nature's bounty" that can make a drink even more drinkable. Finally, she takes emboldened readers deep into the garden, where she tempts them with everything from apples and angelica blooms to sloe (aka blackthorns) and watermelon.

Stewart is glad that a growing segment of drinkers are moving away from artificially flavored syrups and powdered mixes to join a DIY movement that favors local and organic ingredients. In a region hailed for its pristine produce, she suggests, there's just no reason get sloshed on chemical-infused cocktails.

"Increasingly, people want to know what's in their drink, and that it's not manufactured," says Stewart, who credits people like Gary Crunkleton of Chapel Hill's The Crunkleton for renewing interest in classic cocktails with modern twists. He likewise acknowledges her influence on pushing bartenders and mixologists to "think beyond the ordinary."

"I am already looking for a tobacco liqueur to add to my home bar," he says, noting Stewart's anthropological examination of liqueurs made from nicotiana tabacum. "Tobacco holding such a prominent part of our state's history, it is only appropriate to make a drink with it."

While Stewart is all about getting back to nature, she urges caution among foragers.

"There's a certain foolish bravado with wild foraging," says Stewart, whose book is filled with warnings about toxic plants, as well as potentially illegal ones like poppies. "You have to respect that nature is powerful. If you're not absolutely sure what you've got, don't drop it in alcohol and let it infuse its extracts and drink it."

Garden and glass

Gary Crunkleton owns the über-hip The Crunkleton, a private club in Chapel Hill that specializes in classic cocktails and new concoctions destined for similar distinction. He's the stuff of legend in these parts for making his own infusions, bitters and even tonic with organic and often locally sourced ingredients.

That makes him the ideal person to introduce not only Amy Stewart but also the rock-star mixologist Charlotte Voisey, who has tiptoed through the garden to create four new cocktails for the Drunken Botanist Cocktail Party at Fearrington Village.

"Charlotte is the best at what she does," Crunkleton says admiringly of Voisey, who was recognized by the James Beard Foundation in 2009 for her contributions to mixology. Among other accolades, she also was named Wine Enthusiast's inaugural Mixologist of the Year Wine Star in 2011.

If you plan to belly up to the bar, here's what you can expect:

The Spice Rack: Sailor Jerry Rum, Pimm's No.1, orange peel simple syrup, fresh lemon juice and allspice mist

Cucumber and cilantro margarita: Milagro silver tequila, English cucumber, cilantro, fresh lime juice, agave nectar, lime wheel and cilantro leaf garnish

The Flower Patch: Hendrick's gin, chamomile tea simple syrup, fresh lemon juice, egg whites and loose chamomile tea leaves garnish

Juniper Meadow: Hendrick's gin, fresh strawberries, fresh mandarins, fresh tangerines, fresh pineapple, fresh lemon, fresh lime, pink peppercorn syrup, fresh arugula and cucumber water spritz

This article appeared in print with the headline "Gin blossoms."

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