This month we’re taking on, not a classic cocktail per se, but a classic American drink that predates mixology: the shrub. Shrubs evolved as a way of preserving or using up summer fruits – waste not, want not, and all that – and are basically just fruit vinegars that can be mixed into water (or alcohol). Pre-refrigeration, early Americans would macerate fruit in sugar, then mix the resulting syrup with vinegar, for a shelf-stable taste of sunny summer even in the cold, dark winter months.
That’s a gross oversimplification, of course. If you want the entire history – along with many excellent recipes for shrubs and shrub cocktails – pick up Michael Dietsch’s new book Shrubs: An Old Fashioned Drink for Modern Times (Countryman Press), out Oct. 6. Dietsch painstakingly researched the history and variants of the shrub, and says you shouldn’t be turned off by the idea of drinking vinegar (Christ on the cross!):
“It turns out that vinegar is incredibly good at quenching your thirst when it’s hot out,” Dietsch says. “Research shows that sour-tasting beverages – such as vinegar and lemonade – are better at stimulating salivation than are other drinks. A wet mouth helps you feel hydrated even after you’re done drinking.” Which, um: gross, but OK – it’s true there’s nothing more quenching than lemonade on a hot day.
Shrubs could not be easier to make; you don’t even need a stove. I chose to make a blackberry shrub, but any stone fruit or berry will work (or even vegetables, in fact – celery, cucumber and beets all make fine shrubs). Even better, if you’re a farmers market regular, you can use the overripe or ugly fruits sold as seconds, which are cheaper than the pretty stuff (just cut away any bruised parts).
And they are endlessly customizable. The basic formula is equal parts fruit, sugar and vinegar, but that can vary according to your preferences and the sweetness or tartness of the fruit you’re using. As well, you can use any kind of vinegar (balsamic, red wine, apple cider, sherry, champagne) and any kind of sugar (white, brown, turbinado, muscovado, demerara), again according to your preferences. And you can add herbs to create a more complex flavor combination – strawberry with basil, say, or pear and rosemary.
If you’ve read this column for long, you know the basic building blocks of a craft cocktail: spirits plus something sweet, something sour and something bitter. Shrubs take care of both the sour and the sweet, making them a handy thing to keep around for insta-drinks. I include a cocktail recipe as usual, but really, all you need to do is add a complementary spirit (bourbon with peach shrub; gin with raspberry shrub) and some sparkling water and you’re all set to shrub-a-dub-dub.
one part fruit
one part sugar
one part vinegar
water or brandy, to taste
Cover the fruit with sugar and let rest for at least four hours, or a full day. Using cheesecloth or a fine mesh strainer, separate resulting syrup from fruit. Whisk fruit syrup with vinegar. Add desired amount of shrub to water or brandy and drink.
1 1/2 ounces Hendricks gin
1 1/2 ounces blackberry-and-champagne vinegar shrub
1/2 ounce Cocchi Americano
1/2 ounce St. Germain
6 ounces lavender Dry Soda
dash of Peychaud’s bitters
3 whole blackberries, to garnish
First, consider these measurements approximate: Every shrub varies in sweetness/tartness, so adjust to your taste. Shake gin, shrub, Cocchi and St. Germain lightly in a shaker with a bit of ice, not to dilute but to mix the vinegar in case it’s settled. Pour into a tall glass over ice, top with lavender soda, add a dash of Peychaud’s and garnish with fresh blackberries.