If they had a contest for the least sexy name for a cocktail ingredient, “shrub” would be a pretty serious contender. Its other name, “drinking vinegar,” sounds even worse. Then again, we shouldn’t let poor nomenclature stand in the way of discovering a powerful and versatile tipple ingredient, since shrubs (a.k.a. fruit preserved with sugar and vinegar) can deliver an explosive and potent combination of acidity and sweetness to mixed drinks. That, in combination with the shrub’s status as a veritable secret weapon for enhancing savoury and non-alcoholic cocktails, has moved bartenders to get past the odd-sounding name, even if every barfly hasn’t arrived at a similar understanding yet.
“Sometimes it’s hard to get people beyond what they think they know,” says Kate Boushel, bartender at Le Mal Nécessaire, Montreal’s tropical watering hole. “The easiest way to describe a shrub is to call it ‘fruit vinegar,’ which many people think will be too sharp or sour for them.” Vinegar’s sour tendencies, however, are mellowed in the shrub-making process, at least when it’s done by those who have mastered the technique. Though many are just learning about it, shrubs have been around, in one form or another, for at least a thousand years.
“Shrubs are an ancient beverage,” explains Michael Dietsch, a Washington, D.C., writer who authored Shrubs: An Old-Fashioned Drink for Modern Times. “Called sharab, they were common in Persia and Turkey, occasionally served fresh, but, more often, they would be stored in a powder form – sort of like a 1,000-year-old Tang or Country Style lemonade – that you could add water to and drink.” Through cultural exchange, shrubs made their way to Europe, where alcohol – usually rum or brandy – was added, replacing other preserving agents. This new spiked shrub was adopted by sailors who used it to guard against scurvy on long voyages. In colonial America, farmers increasingly swapped in vinegar for alcohol and this fruit-vinegar version is the one that most cocktail enthusiasts are currently using in their drinks.
So why revive this obscure colonial-era technique now? For starters, it’s the perfect accessory for the craft cocktail ethos that includes suspenders, 19th-century facial hair and the general conceit that a chosen few purists are bringing back the golden age of drinking.
“I think there’s a DIY aesthetic that appeals to people who want to put their own spin on a cocktail and want to branch away from what Bacardi tells them to do,” says Dietsch. “But it also provides an acid backbone to cocktails similar to what you get in a sour from lemon juice. With everything else going on in a shrub, it gives you more complexity than plain citrus.”
The shrub’s potency and complexity can make the ingredient a bit tricky to work with. Its biggest strength can easily become a weakness since the shrub builds up on the tongue and can overwhelm the drink, leading to palate fatigue and half-consumed cocktails. “A little goes a long way,” then, is probably one of the few hard-and-fast rules of shrubbery, since there are otherwise unlimited permutations and applications. Any vinegar – balsamic, apple cider, rice, champagne – can be paired with practically any fruit.
Berries and stone fruits are the most common choice, since, like pickling or canning, shrubs are, at heart, a way of extending the lifespan of seasonal ingredients. As such, shrubs can make the fantasy of a 100-mile cocktail menu a little more realistic, even in cold climates, where locavore bartenders are starved for fresh produce for half the year, from the final cranberries of late fall until the appearance of spring’s first rhubarb.
Over that long stretch no ingredient is more sorely missed than the fresh tomato, which has led to tomato and tomatillo shrubs, for use in savoury cocktails such as the Bloody Mary and Caesar. This, in turn, has inspired a wave of celery, ginger, cucumber and beet variations. Each of these shrubs is pretty friendly with gin, aquavit or tequila, usually only requiring the addition of mint, citrus or soda to transform it into a refreshing long drink.
But the shrub’s most promising role behind the bar may hearken back to its early origins (before Europeans added alcohol to it), since bartenders are often stumped for ways to do something inventive with non-alcoholic or low-alcohol cocktails, a neglected but necessary component of a contemporary cocktail menu.
“There’s nothing more thirst-quenching than a really great ginger shrub on a hot day,” says Boushel. “Farmers have known that for years, long before cocktail bartenders discovered them, so I think they’re perfect for customers who don’t want to drink too much but still want something really satisfying.”
Indeed. A shrub is a drink that can get some love from nearly everyone – locavores, teetotalers, agricultural workers, and, most of all, those guys with funny mustaches and sideburns. To them, the shrub is plenty sexy. No matter how bad its name might sound.
For shrub and cocktail recipes, including The Apiary from Toronto’s The Harbord Room, Vicki’s Cobbler from Montreal’s Le Mal Nécessaire and The Doctor’s Pepper from Victoria’s Olo, download the free Globe Style Advisor app.