Vinegar can be a very polarizing substance. Mr. Menace, for example, cannot stand the stuff, and thus shuns all foods related to or soaking in it. This means that the many olives, pickles, and bizarre condiments that populate our refrigerator tend to belong to me. This doesn’t really bother me since I am on the complete opposite end of the spectrum – I absolutely love it, can’t get enough, and am just as happy not to ever have to share (until my equally delighted friends or family come over, of course). There’s a part of me that feels a little bit bad that he doesn’t enjoy vinegar, however – think of everything he’s missing out on! Pickles, clearly, are the n’est plus ultra of vinegar-based cuisine, but it’s also the base of certain types of barbecue, infinite marinades, and sushi rice. Since Colonial times, it’s also been the key ingredient in a variety of refreshing drinks.
For most Americans this will come as somewhat of a surprise. Knocking a back a cold glass of acetic acid, as vinegar is known chemically, hardly sounds appealing. Yet our forefathers considered it the key component to many delicious and even healthful beverages, and in other parts of the world the tradition continues. Now, thanks to the craft cocktail movement, we in the US are rediscovering the joys of drinking vinegar.
Mind you, I’m not talking here about unfiltered apple cider vinegar, which many health food enthusiasts, raw foodists and the like dutifully drink for its many nutritional benefits. I’m talking about vinegar that you drink for fun and the flavor, often enhanced with a bit of liquor. I’m talking about shrubs.
Clearly, I don’t mean the bushes growing in your front yard. In culinary terms, a shrub is a sweet vinegar concoction. It’s made by infusing vinegar with fruit or spices, and combining that with sugar syrup. The vinegar used isn’t the harsh white vinegar that most of us have in our kitchen cabinets, however. Mellower, sweeter vinegars such as apple cider or wine are the typical base. The result is a tart, fruity syrup that is delicious diluted a bit with soda water – or even better, employed in a cocktail.
Cocktailnerd points out that in many ways these sweet, fruity vinegars are the perfect cocktail ingredient, as they combine the sweetness of sugar or juice with the sour notes of citrus – a combination that many, many popular cocktails employ. The original makers of shrub had more practical concerns in mind when they made it, however; shrubs were a good way to save all-too-ephemeral fruit in the days before refrigeration and ensure access to its abundant vitamins long after the growing season was over. Potable water being a scarce commodity, however, it made as much sense to mix your shrub with rum or brandy as with anything else, and was quite possibly the healthier option. While this is no longer the case for most of us living in the modern, Western world, the combination just works.
Vinegar is enjoying an upswing in popularity as a cocktail ingredient – many are looking at it as the next frontier for serious cocktail geeks, the latest hot drink addition. This means that, should you be keen to whip up your own batch of shrub, recipes abound.
Luckily for those of us with less time on our hands, Tait Farms makes a lovely series of shrubs all ready to pop into your cocktail of choice. My fantastic local cocktail supply emporium, The Boston Shaker, carries the full line, and after trying them nearly a year ago I decided to finally commit and buy a bottle. I selected the ginger shrub as I tend to be a bigger fan of spice than fruit in my cocktails. Bringing it home I searched for drink recipes that employed shrub, but most of them were pretty straight forward – mix it into the liquor of your choice and add a bit of soda water or other bubbly beverage. Since ginger is pretty much BFFs with rum in a Dark ‘n Stormy, I decided to make a variation on that – first with soda water, then with ginger beer in a sort of “Dark ‘n Stormy Plus.” (Yes, I was even using Gosling’s branded ginger beer! Thanks for bringing it home, Mr. Menace!)
The first version, with the soda water, was light and refreshing, with a crisp ginger taste and just a hint of musty vinegar. It was very good, but not the rhapsodic shrub experience many have reported. At that point it was just another interesting addition to the many bitters, syrups and tinctures that I already own. Then I tried it in the Dark ‘n Stormy.
That was a very different matter. A veritable ginger explosion. And it was outstanding.
The shrub totally enhanced the flavors of both ginger beer and rum, deepening them and tying them more tightly together. Everything was MORE and yet not at all overwhelming. I’m officially in love.
If any of you out there have tried shrubs before, what have you done with them? I’m eager to figure out other great recipes, but I’d love some ideas!