You might not enjoy slurping down a glass of straight vinegar, but throw some fruit and sugar in with the vinegar and the resulting shrub, as it’s called, makes any drink — alcoholic or not — a refreshing thirst-quencher.
Although vinegar-based syrups haven’t been common in the days since canning and refrigeration were invented, they’ve been making a comeback in the craft cocktail world lately as bartenders bring back pre-Prohibition recipes and ingredients. Writer Michael Dietsch has been right in the center of shrubs’ resurgence, and he’s written a book, “Shrubs: An Old-Fashioned Drink for Modern Times” (Countryman Press, $24.95), to help people make them in their own homes, much as they would have done at the height of shrubs’ popularity in the late 1700s through the 1800s, when there were just as often alcohol-laced shrubs as vinegar-based ones.
“Shrubs might be trendy right now, but the idea of drinking vinegar is ancient,” Dietsch writes in the section of the book that delves into shrubs’ long history. “Vinegar, of course, is made from wine… Wine has been around for at least 8,000 years, and because wine naturally turns to vinegar as it ages, vinegar then must be nearly as old as wine.”
Booze-based shrubs gained a following in the 1700s, when rum was still a young, rough beverage that didn’t go down so easy and needed sugar and the juice of an acidic fruit like oranges or lemons to taste better. But shrubs as we know them today center around vinegar, and they don’t always have to go into an alcoholic beverage.
In addition to the history section, Dietsch’s book includes nearly 50 shrub recipes, as well as a variety of cocktail recipes that feature them. Shrubs often add an extra element of flavor — they can just as easily be tart and savory as sweet, with many containing herbs and vegetables rather than, or in addition to, fruits — to cocktails like the Ultramodern, a twist on the Old-Fashioned.
And if you’re not looking to make your own shrub — but still like the idea of having a quality mixer in your cocktails — you can also find bottled syrups on the market such as the Austin-based Liber & Co. line. Liber & Co.’s Texas Grapefruit Shrub is a particularly delicious example of what shrubs can do, combining Rio Star grapefruits, coconut vinegar, cane sugar and a hint of allspice to create a mixture that’s equal parts sweet and tart.
2 oz. bourbon
1/2 oz. Scotch, preferably something smoky, like Laphroaig
1/2 oz. Fig-Cinnamon Shrub (see below)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Add all ingredients to an ice-filled mixing glass. Stir to combine.
Double-strain into a rocks glass filled with ice.
1 pint purple figs, puréed in a blender
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1-2 cinnamon sticks (depending on how subtle a flavor you want)
1 cup turbinado sugar
Combine puréed figs, apple cider vinegar and cinnamon in a container. Allow to steep on the countertop for two days. Taste. If you started with one cinnamon stick and you want more cinnamon flavor, add a second stick and allow to steep another day.
Strain off fig solids and cinnamon. Pour liquid into a bottle or jar, add turbinado sugar, and shake. Allow to sit for at least a week before using.
— Michael Dietsch, “Shrubs”