To be truly great, a cocktail must balance its sweet and sour elements. A shrub, often referred to as a drinking vinegar in its nonalcoholic form, boasts both flavors. Cocktail shrubs combine water, fruit (and sometimes other botanicals), sugar and vinegar to create an acidic syrup that adds depth and complexity when mixed into a cocktail.
But a shrub can be a complicated ingredient to craft well. As you might imagine, a mediocre vinegar or an underflavored fruit syrup can throw the shrub out of whack, leaving you with an underwhelming mixture that won’t enhance your cocktail. These tips will help you refine your shrub-making technique.
How to Choose a Vinegar
Not all vinegars are created equal. Avoid using distilled vinegars. They lack sufficient character or flavor and only add lackluster acetic acid to your shrub.
Learning how to make your own vinegar from spent wines is a great place to start and the easiest way to create a complex shrub that has the characteristics you can only get from fermentation. You can also buy vinegars that have been made through the fermentation process, but they’re typically more expensive because of the time and resources needed to make them.
But it’s important to make the investment. “Especially when it comes to using balsamic, quality is super important,” says Jena Ellenwood, a cocktail educator and bartender. “If it isn’t something you like the taste of on its own, you probably won’t like it in a shrub.”
That said, since the good vinegars are relatively pricey, if you’re testing a new recipe you might want to use a less-expensive one on the first go so you don’t waste your precious liquid on a recipe that’s not quite right. “Sometimes I will test a shrub recipe with a lesser-quality vinegar before I solidify the recipe,” says Ellenwood. “The good stuff can be pricey, and you don’t want to make an expensive mistake.”
Gergő Muráth, the bar manager at London bar Trailer Happiness, believes that a high-quality apple cider vinegar (such as Bragg) is a great option that’s both accessible and versatile. Ellenwood employs apple cider vinegar as well in her Pineapple Shrub.
After you’ve found (or made) a vinegar you like, it’s time to think about how it pairs with the rest of the ingredients you’re using—or the other way around. “My vinegar choice usually depends on the other ingredients—fruit or herbs that I want to highlight,” says Ellenwood. “I really love using Champagne vinegar and white balsamic. White balsamic has a great roundness to it without bullying the other elements; I love it with raspberries.” You’ll see the combination in her Berry Shrub, where it’s complemented by thyme.
How to Make the Syrup
There are a few ways to make syrups, but they essentially boil down to two methods: hot or cold. As you’ve probably already guessed, hot methods apply heat to create the syrup, on the stovetop or via sous vide. Cold methods can include blending or creating an oleo saccharum, which essentially macerates fruit with sugar, pulling the water from the fruit to create a syrup.
Most fruits benefit from using a cold method, although the oleo saccharum method can require more time. If your shrub doesn’t include any ingredients such as cinnamon that require heat to release flavor in nonalcoholic solutions, cold methods are the way to go. Strawberries, for example, don’t fare well when heat is added; they turn bitter and lose the essence of their flavor. Macerating strawberries with sugar to create a syrup will yield a more vibrant fruit flavor.
“I let the fruit dictate which method I use,” says Ellenwood. “Do I want bright fruit notes or jammy caramelized notes? With delicate fruits, berries and herbs, I’ll go with a cold method. Heartier fruits or deeper spices? Hot method all the way. Pressed for time? Hot method.”
How to Make the Shrub
There isn’t just one way to make a shrub, and it’s worth experimenting with various methods and flavor combinations to find what fits your preferences. It is important, however, to ensure that your shrub’s flavor profile compliments the cocktail you’re aiming to use it in.
“Sometimes I steep the fruit in a mixture of vinegar and sugar; sometimes I simply mix flavored syrup with vinegar; sometimes I simmer them all,” says Muráth. “It's dependent on the final flavor I want and what other ingredients I'm using.” His Peach & Pineau Shrub employs the first method.
Muráth says that with juicy fruits, such as pineapple, strawberries and blackberries, making an oleo saccharum and mixing it with vinegar is a good way to go. Alternatively, you can gently simmer all the ingredients in a saucepan over low heat, or try your hand at other methods such as sous vide if you’re savvy in the kitchen.
How to Use It
When it comes to using a shrub in cocktails, its flavors typically shine best in juleps and drinks over ice, since shrubs benefit from a hefty dose of dilution. They’re also best in cocktails that don’t already contain a highly acidic element such as lime or lemon juice, but every rule has an exception. Ellenwood uses a pineapple shrub in her Island Oasis cocktail, where it’s joined by aged rum, coconut water and pineapple juice.
Muráth recommends using shrubs in highball-style cocktails. “The sparkling component works incredibly well off the fruity acetic acid bite, simultaneously elevating the best bits and tempering the acidity,” he says. “With most other drink types, you are likely to have a citrus component of some sort or don't necessarily need acidity.” That said, you should of course feel free to experiment.
Shrubs are also great in nonalcoholic cocktails, requiring only some soda water to create a refreshing sipper to enjoy at any time of day.