Shrubs Cocktail Vinegar Tonics

Shrubs, a brief history

Colonial Americans were a boozy lot. Many began their days with a tankard of cider and ended with a whiskey. John Adams started each day with a draft of hard cider. Sam Adams managed his father’s brewery, and Patrick Henry worked as a bartender. Summers in much of America are sweltering and must have been intolerable in the pre-AC days. Many early American colonists made shrub-based drinks to cool down. Why didn’t they drink water? A quote from a few centuries later in an 1889 issue of Good Housekeeping magazine captured the sentiment well: “physicians hold up water as a very grim and deleterious beverage, every glass of which should be labeled with a skull and cross-bones.”

So what’s a man to drink without drinking water? Shrubs are one great way to go. A shrub is basically fruit, mixed with sugar, briefly fermented, and doused with vinegar to kill the chemical reactions introduced by bacteria and yeast. A properly made shrub captures the essence of a base fruit, a modicum of sweetness, and a small amount of funk from vinegar. Using a small enough amount of vinegar is key as nuking the shrub with vinegar will mask the fruit, and that’s the whole point of making a shrub anyway. 

Making Shrubs

Alycia topping off drinks.

Back in July we went to a shrub and cocktail vinegar class put on by pickling wizard Swifty from Swifty’s Pickles and the very talented mixologist Alicia Walton, hosted out of the Sea Star SF in the Dogpatch. During the fact filled workshop we learned about the microbial basis of shrubs: microbial interactions break fruit down, and start to precipitate out pectin, the polysaccharide component of plant cell walls. The microbial interactions are catalyzed by the addition of sugar, and arrested with the introduction of vinegar. Once in solution with vinegar, the pectin absorbs some of the harsh vinegar and makes the resulting shrub much more palatable over time.

The goal of a shrub is to capture the essence of fresh fruit, perfectly in season. If you cook fruit before you’re going to capture the essence of cooked fruit. Not bad, but probably not what you’re going for. 

Many jars in front of bar with many bottles behind it
Swifty in action

There are three places where the info we’d heard about shrub making was off:

  1. People add way too much sugar, intensifying the microbial reactions, and forcing you to add a lot of vinegar to counter. Sugar should be added in moderation to create a sweet product and to catalyze the reaction, but the dominant flavor should be the underlying fruit!
  2. People who made cooked shrubs are making simple syrup. Great, but not the same thing.
  3. People use some high end fancy vinegars. Just use basic white vinegar, or a cheap wine vinegar. Cider vinegar is fine too in moderation. Balsamics have a ton of extra sugar added and are ok in very light doses as a flavor enhancer, but shouldn’t be used as the primary vinegar.

Swifty walked through the simple process of making strawberry shrubs.

  • First, start with ripe strawberries (or whatever other fruit you want to make).
  • Crush the berries with your hands, or with a muddler.
  • Add sugar equal to 1/4 of the volume of fruit you start with. If you start with 4 cups of fruit, you’re going to want… quick math… 1 cup of sugar.
  • Mix the sugar into the muddled berries and juice
  • Using a strainer, strain out the solids and leave the rest in a mason jar.
  • You don’t have to close the lid super tight.
  • Leave the jar on the counter for 2 days or so at an ambient temperature of 60-70 degrees. 2 and a half is fine, timing doesn’t have to be down to the minute.
  • IMPORTANT – after you check on it, if you see a film on the top, discard it, wash and start again.
  • Add in vinegar equal to the volume of sugar you added. 1 cup in this case.
  • IMPORTANT – don’t drink it right now.
  • IMPORTANT – really don’t drink it right now.
  • Let the mixture rest for another week or so on the counter. Shake the jar lightly every day.
  • After a week it should be ready. You can strain again into a container.

I approached the class with a, healthy, skepticism of the microbial world. Microbes make you sick. Bad. Bu Hao. Over the course of the 2 hour workshop, Swifty explained that people were overly paranoid about bacteria and microbes, and that, as long as proper precautions were taken, you could kill the majority and create a much better tasting production. At home, I waited the prescribed 2 days, carefully monitoring the shrub every few hours to check its progress, and shaking the jar whenever I walked by. I added vinegar, and sampled it. It was delicious! I called my significant other to relate the progress, and she said something to the effect of “you’re fucking idiot, you were supposed to let it sit for a week.”

She was right.

Three days of “acute gastrointestinal distress” followed.

At the end of the week we both cautiously tried it again, and it was excellent! The fresh strawberry taste shone through and we were successful in putting it in a wide array of cocktails in place of both the sweet and acid / tart component.

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