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  • Getting a horticulture lesson at the liquor store

  • If you visit your local liquor store to prepare for your New Year's celebration, it might surprise you to learn that you are surrounded by plant products.
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  • If you visit your local liquor store to prepare for your New Year's celebration, it might surprise you to learn that you are surrounded by plant products.
    Whether it's champagne, wine, beer or other alcohol beverages, virtually all have come from a plant source. Agave gives us tequila, rum comes from sugar cane, barley and rye provide whiskey, beer needs barley and hops (a cousin of cannabis), apples yield hard cider and brandy, and so on. In other words, every great drink starts with a plant.
    Humans have been making alcoholic beverages for a long time. Archeologists have found evidence of wine-making in the Middle East from 6,000 years ago, and in China, since 7000 B.C. Interestingly enough, virtually every culture has made alcohol in some form, except for Native Americans in North America. Our neighbors to the south made it from corn, agave, honey, cactus, and bark and seedpods of other plants, but no archeological evidence has been found in North America. Maybe they just hid it well.
    China makes wine from barley, rice and apples; Japan's strong wine (sake) is also made from rice. England makes lots of fruit wines, while Brazil makes wine from sugar cane. In Turkey, where religion forbids using grapes for wine, it is made from fermented raisins, and in the East Indies, sap from the cocoa tree is the start of some of their wines.
    Yeast is a critical factor in the making of alcoholic beverages, as different strains can radically influence the flavor of the finished product. Yeast feeds on sugar — starches, we would call them — but is self-limiting in a way. As it consumes the sugar, yeast produces carbon dioxide and alcohol. You will never find a fermented beverage with more than 15 percent alcohol, because the yeast dies with more than that amount of alcohol in its environment. By the way, beer is foamy because some of the carbon dioxide is kept in the beer for that purpose.
    In case you are wondering how I know about this, I have been reading "The Drunken Botanist" by Amy Stewart on these cold, snowy days. Ms. Stewart has thoroughly researched the subject and has many more interesting facts in her book.
    For example, while many of us believe that vodka is made from potatoes, the truth is that it was being distilled from grains by Russia and Poland long before potatoes ever arrived in Europe in the 17th century. Since alcohol is a byproduct of yeast interacting with sugars converted from starches, grains are better than potatoes for making alcohol, as the potato has a very stable, hard-to-convert form of starch. It was during World War II that American vodka makers began using some potatoes in the vodka formula, because grains were in such limited supply for making booze.
    It also surprised me a bit to learn how many kinds of spices and fruits are used to make alcoholic beverages. Gin, for example, might contain some juniper, citrus peel, lavender buds and cilantro in order to give it the distinctive flavor of a particular brand. Then, as a drink is mixed using the gin, even more flavors such as mint, lemon or fresh jalapeno may be added. Bartenders, like manufacturers, tend to keep those recipes very secret.
    Sometimes caramel coloring is added to beer and whiskey to make it darker. And that worm in the tequila bottle? Just a marketing gimmick.
    In closing, here is a word of caution about plants. While I encourage experimentation and imagination, that refers to growing them, not consuming them. Some plants are poisonous, so before you decide to make wine from the weeds growing in the cracks of your driveway, please be sure you are well educated about them. Some things are best left to the experts.
    I raise my glass to wish you a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year!
    Coming up: Training classes to become a Master Gardener begin Jan. 15, and a few seats are open. Call Bob Reynolds at 541-776-7371 to learn more.
    Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. Email her at diggit1225@gmail.com.
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