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Let’s Rethink the Shrub

October 22, 2020

Story: Matt Rodbard

photo: Alex Lau

In its third-wave reimagining, drinking vinegar has collected a new set of flavors and ingredients, from celery to pumpkin, kombu to plum.

“Vinegar can be a bully,” admits Sean Umstead, describing the endless battle to build something drinkable from it. But when a bartender like Umstead, owner of Kingfisher in Durham, North Carolina, hits the shrub lottery, the pyrotechnics on the palate can be more than worth it.

A combination of fruit and sugar acidified to preserve the mixture, shrubs—or drinking vinegars as they’re often known—were first popularized during the American Colonial period. In their second wave they were revived, alongside other period drinking curiosities, like applejack and the flip, by adventurous bartenders in the 2010s. Today, with the rise of non-alcoholic drinks and a general shift to more bitter and sour flavors, shrubs have found popularity in a third wave—and this time around vegetables often take the place of fruit.

A successful shrub story can play out for both spirited cocktails and non-alcoholic beverages alike, adding excitement in a sea of blah. “It’s the same way that a great whiskey adds complexity to a sour that lemonade doesn’t have,” says Umstead. “Vinegar contains those fermented, microbial phenolics and flavors that build depth, nuance and intrigue into a drink.” But shrubs, like other once-obscure ingredients like sherry and madeira, take some championing.

Julia Bainbridge, a journalist and author of Good Drinks, was won over during her time reporting the book, traveling the country bar to bar, as a means of surveying just how elaborate, and even experimental, the non-alcoholic drink (née mocktail) has become. “What I love about shrubs is that there’s no doubt that they’re adult beverages,” she says. “The combination of vinegar and fruit (or whatever else you’re using) is much more sophisticated than a sugary soda.” Bainbridge included two shrub recipes in her book, including a vegetal riff used in a Squash & Sorghum cocktail, and spotted versions made with celery, pumpkin, tomato, fennel, plum, peppercorns, coriander, cilantro and basil. “Whatever it is, you can likely shrub it,” she says.

For Christina Crawford, who runs the Brooklyn-based Tart Vinegar, a brand of cooking and drinking vinegars selling inventive expressions made from celery to grapefruit to kombu, shrubs offer an opportunity for smaller companies to participate in the drinks world without the regulations required for traditional booze startups. “The access to incredible ingredients and making a thing that makes you feel better, that’s the appeal,” she says.

For others in the industry, shrubs are a way to revisit American drinking history. “In Colonial times, they didn’t know about vitamins and the benefits of probiotics in vinegars, but they knew they could feel better by drinking these preserved fruit concoctions during the harsh winters,” says Alex Anderson, a bartender at Cure in New Orleans. She points to the Roffignac cocktail, named after a beloved mayor of New Orleans who served from 1820 to 1828, and later lionized in Stanley Clisby Arthur’s Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix ’Em, published in 1937, as an example of an early shrub cocktail. The drink’s original build called for Cognac, soda and a mysterious raspberry syrup, which was highly acidic and more aligned with what we consider a shrub.

For Anderson, who has created 15 shrubs in her 14 years bartending, the modern shrub offers an exciting, and practical, way to add complexity to a cocktail. “Tweaking a product like that can be very satisfying and a way to introduce uncommon flavors to drinks.” Plus, she says, “shrubs last longer than syrups in fridges, so production-wise, it’s a good idea.”

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