Shrubs are slowly but surely holding their own behind the bar, showing up in craft cocktails and mocktails all over the region. Bartenders are using them to enhance classics or to create entirely new drinks, each with its own unique taste. But the truth is, shrubs, or drinking vinegars, have been around for hundreds of years, and they’re having a comeback.
As they say, everything old becomes new again. But what exactly is a shrub? And why are bartenders choosing to use shrubs? We spoke with Josh Kramer, CEO of Shrub Farm in Bellingham, Washington, to learn more.
What are shrubs?
When you first think of shrubs, you may only know them as that drink with vinegar and your guard immediately goes up, but hear us out. There’s much more to them. Kramer describes a shrub as a vinegar preserve made up of vinegar, fruit and sugar, along with other additions like ginger root or herbs, depending on the end goal. A shrub can be made with any type of vinegar, from white vinegar to rice vinegar to apple cider vinegar, which again, all depends on the maker’s preference.
The word shrub comes from the Arabic word sharab which means “to drink,” and they were incredibly common during early colonial times as makers would use shrubs to preserve the flavors of fruits, as well as making refreshing drinks before refrigeration ever existed.
How are shrubs made?
A shrub is made by introducing fruits like blueberries, strawberries, ginger, anything really, to vinegar and allowing it to sit. Some makers choose to take the vinegar, dilute it with a tiny bit of water, and then let the fruit mingle, while others sustain its full potency.
According to Kramer, Shrub Farm makes their shrubs raw, meaning they let their apple cider vinegar steep with the added fruit, extracting the flavors for a week. However, other shrubs can be made by heating and cooking the vinegar to extract the flavors. “We’ve standardized ours to a week,” he says. “You can do it in a couple of days, but the longer it sits, the better.”
Once the mixture has macerated, it’s strained and Kramer says you’re left with the fruit essence, vitamins and enzymes infused in the vinegar. The concentrate is bottled with a “best by” date, but since shrubs were once used to preserve fruit back in the day, it makes sense that they don’t typically have an actual expiration.
How are shrubs used?
As shrubs are making their way into more cocktails, bartenders are playing with different ways to use them. Shrubs add complexity to a beverage and they’re being added to everything from a simple soda water to a margarita. “A shrub acts like a citrus note once it’s mixed,” Kramer says. “It’s in the background, but it acts as a sour.”
Shrubs add a great balance of sweet and tart, and craft bartenders seem to love playing with different sours to see what flavors they can bring forward in their drinks. And because shrubs use vinegar as a base, they’re incredibly potent, meaning a drink only requires a small amount to impart flavor into the final mixture.
“The vinegar has a way of pulling out the essence of the fruit, and it comes to the front of the palate,” Kramer says. “It’s a different way to add unique flavors.”
Want to make your own shrub? Test out our recipe here.