Shrubs are sweet and tart vinegar-based syrups, also known as drinking vinegars, created with sugar, fruit or vegetables, spices, and herbs. These mixtures are increasingly popular in both cocktails and soft drinks.
“Shrubs evolved during colonial days when there was no refrigeration, and vinegar was used as a way to preserve fruit,” says Resa Mueller, lead bartender of Royal Boucherie in Philadelphia. “The vinegar is balanced by the sugar and fruit.”
After falling out of favor for decades, shrubs are making a comeback as the result of several trends: the craft cocktail movement, a shift away from artificial ingredients and toward seasonal ingredients, and an increase in low-ABV cocktail and nonalcoholic options.
Mix and made
“You’re seeing [beverage experts] in the past few years starting to experiment with ingredients and cocktails they wouldn’t try earlier,” says Missy Koefod, co-owner of Atlanta’s 18.21 Bitters, a retail and bar operation that features an entire shrub line.
Shrubs hit all the right notes, she adds, and are natural products that last months. Shrubs are also a great way to utilize an abundance of seasonal produce.
Perhaps best of all from an operator’s perspective is that shrubs are an easy and cost-effective way to create a complex cocktail component, says Matt Ray, beverage director at the Ace Hotel New Orleans. “The cool thing is shrubs are such a versatile form, basically just vinegar and sugar. If you can make a syrup, you can make a shrub.”
Brendan Dobbin, dining room and beverage manager at San Francisco’s Anchor & Hope, agrees with Ray’s sentiment. “The best thing is its convenience,” he says. “It’s like going to the store and getting a premade mix, but it has the freshness you can’t get with premade.”
Flavors and textures of shrubs can vary, depending on how the shrub is made, the type and amount of ingredients used, and the infusion time. The vinegars used can range from light Champagne to strong balsamic, while fruit provides a sweet, seasonal touch.
The time required to make shrubs also differs, from hours to days. A cherry shrub at Portland, Oregon’s The Waiting Room is mixed with clear alcohol, covered with cheesecloth, and put in a hot attic for five days. “It makes the flavor a little more complex but easier for [guests] to get their tongues around,” says Matt Gumm, beverage manager.
“The generic flavor of shrubs is sweet-tart,” says Jason Stevens, director of bars and beverage for Austin, Texas’ La Corsha Hospitality Group. “Sometimes more sweet, sometimes more tart. It just depends what you’re trying to accomplish.”
Generally, the vinegar is “not too forward in shrubs, so they have approachability,” says James Adams, executive beverage manager of Westford, Massachusetts-based 110 Grill, which has 15 units. “It’s a way to extend fruit’s seasonality and amplify the cocktail.”
110 Grill has several cocktails using shrubs on the regular menu, including the City Lights Cosmo, which uses a cranberry-apple shrub made with tart Granny Smith apples rather than a cosmopolitan’s typical cranberry and lime juices. There are also seasonal cocktails, such as the Winter Harvest, which employs a house-made apple-ginger shrub.
The shrubs at 18.21 Bitters range from Blackberry Peppercorn to Watermelon Mint. A blood orange and ginger shrub is used in the First and Ten cocktail with bourbon, pomegranate liqueur, and lemon juice. The apple cardamom shrub is part of a winter hot toddy, and, Koefod notes, soda water can be added to the shrubs to make soft drinks.
A few shrubs are employed at Ace Hotel New Orleans’ restaurants and bars. The Casanova Quest has a Turkish fig, cucumber, and white wine vinegar shrub poured over Champagne, and Loretta’s Kiss, one of the most popular drinks at the hotel, features a strawberry shrub with mezcal.
The flavorful cherry shrub in The Waiting Room’s C’mon Eileen cocktail contains macerated Washington cherries, hops, quassia chips, Champagne vinegar, gin, syrup, and cherry bark. When ready, it’s combined with vodka, blueberry-hibiscus simple syrup, lemon juice, amontillado, and Angostura bitters.
Vegetables and switchels
While cucumbers are popular vegetables in shrubs, the Royal Boucherie opts for snap peas in its Baby, Peas Don’t Go. “We chop the peas, add sugar, vinegar, and green peppercorns,” Mueller says. “We stick it in the fridge overnight,” stir, strain, add salt, and combine it with tequila, gentian liqueur, blanc vermouth, and prosecco.
Anchor & Hope doesn’t just combine shrubs and spirits, but it also offers beer cocktails with shrubs, including the Michelada, which combines a tomato shrub—made with mulled tomatoes and chilies, hot water, sugar, and Champagne vinegar—with a light craft beer, Sriracha sauce, and Old Bay seasoning.
A shrub offshoot known as a switchel is used at La Corsha’s The Boiler Room Lounge. Switchels generally don’t rely on fruit for most of the taste and tend to be light. Stevens says he’s working on several switchels for fall, including one based on the classic combination of ginger, molasses, vinegar, and water, but with apples and apple cider vinegar.