It’s not easy being balsamic vinegar. For all its versatility, it is always, above all else, associated with one thing: salad dressing. Maybe glazes or marinades. No matter what, it is seen as an ingredient for cooking, perhaps for drizzling—but certainly not for drinking.
In June, a woman on TikTok proposed that you could make what she called “healthy Coke” by mixing balsamic with flavored seltzer over ice. “I swear to God,” she raved, angelically, crediting her Pilates instructor for the tip. “It tastes like a Coke.” The internet was scandalized, in part because the proposed drink does not especially taste like a Coke. But the dismay also seemed to stem from the simple fact that we have decided, as a civilized society, that balsamic is a strictly culinary tool, associated with “salads,” “Italy” and “the ’90s.”
This sells short the powers of balsamic. As any number of actual bartenders will tell you, the possible applications of balsamic extend far beyond the viral confines of Healthy Coke. Balsamic is fruity. It is acidic. It is a temporary reprieve from the tyranny of citrus. Made with cooked-down grape juice that is then aged in oak barrels, it is sharp, but also sweet. “It just adds depth of flavor,” says Cameron Winkelman, head bartender at Manhatta in New York City, whose Monsieur Lafayette—a French 75 riff—hinges on a blueberry balsamic shrub.
Shrubs might be the most classical balsamic application, or, as Winkelman puts it, “probably how most people would use it outside of TikTok.” A shrub has only three components: a fruit, a vinegar and some sugar—in his case, frozen blueberries reduced with sugar, then mixed with balsamic. “Balsamic has these beautiful, rich, complex dark fruit notes to it,” agrees Stuart Weaver, general manager of Lady Jane in Denver, who is currently pairing blackberries with the vinegar. According to Weaver, balsamic adds nuance to the drink, drawing out the natural acidity of the berries to make them taste even more intensely like themselves.
Weaver is aware, in certain circles, that shrubs do come with some baggage. “Ten or 15 years ago, everyone was using shrubs,” he says, with a rueful laugh. “Now, I really try to stay away from using the term, just because people are like, ‘Oh, shrubs, that’s overdone.’ But it works in drinks. There’s no denying it.”
Shrubs, however, are not the only option. When he invented the Bufala Negra, “I didn’t even know what a shrub was,” says Jerry Slater, now owner of The Expat, in Athens, Georgia. He was in Louisville, Kentucky, at the time, preparing for an event sponsored by Buffalo Trace, and he had a vision for what he describes as “almost like an Italian Mint Julep,” using bourbon, balsamic and basil muddled with spicy ginger ale. He’s concocted countless drinks since then, but none of them landed quite like that; the Bufala Negra has since inspired variations across the country. “People love it,” Slater says. He’d imagine he’d be burnt out on them by now, “and then I’ll taste one, and I’ll be like, ‘Oh, this is kind of nice.’”
For the red sangria at El Quijote in New York City, Sunday Hospitality Group bar director Brian Evans uses just a whisper of balsamic reduction. It’s barely anything, by volume, but “it’s kind of that missing glue,” Evans says, explaining that the added acidity ties the sangria’s fruit flavors together. Across town at Hawksmoor, bar manager Adam Montgomerie reiterates the point: A little goes a long way. For his Mackinaw Highball, a bourbon-based cocktail inspired by peach iced tea, he uses only half a teaspoon—just enough to really tease out the drink’s stone fruit flavors while adding “a little acidic tang.”
It would be a mistake, though, to imagine balsamic should be limited to fruit-based applications. “I used to make a cocktail that was a twist on the Espresso Martini, with rum and amaro, finished with a coffee foam, and on top of that was a balsamic vinegar reduction with Fernet-Branca,” recalls Miami-based bartender Valentino Longo. For his Savory cocktail, a refreshing aperitivo-inspired highball, he uses it in a brine to pickle grapes, then turns the pickling liquid into a cordial for the cocktail. The recipe that won him Most Imaginative Bartender 2020—a gin Martini variation—had three drops of coffee-infused balsamic vinegar floating atop the surface of the drink. It is, for him, literally and figuratively a way to “add an extra layer” to the drinks.
While most bartenders advise exercising some balsamic caution—“as soon as you can taste it, it’s too much,” advises Montgomerie—Matthew Biancaniello, author of the “culinary cocktail” book Eat Your Drink, revels in its power. Lately, he has been making a cocktail with cacao-infused rum, peach, muddled basil and a whole ounce of the vinegar; he reports the drink tastes like “a Tootsie Roll and balsamic had a baby.” For him, it’s not an accent but a primary ingredient. “Don’t be afraid of flavor. Don’t be afraid of letting that balsamic shine.”