Preserve the Season: A Call for Incorporating Shrubs in Cocktails

Five years ago, Ryan Maybee – then co-owner of the speakeasy Manifesto and The Rieger restaurant; now also a partner in the J. Rieger Co. Distillery and a co-founder of the Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival – decided that The Rieger needed drinks that “were lower in ABV, and food-friendly.” He immediately thought of shrubs, a classic form of drinking vinegar. “I love how the acidity can replace citrus in cocktails, while also allowing for so much flexibility in flavors.”

That flexibility makes shrubs a pleasure to work with, and very tempting to make — either behind the bar or as a business.

That's part of the impetus for Missy Koefad, co-owner of 18.21 Bitters, a company that produces small batch, handcrafted cocktail bitters, tinctures, shrubs, syrups and tonic, ginger beer and pre-mixed craft cocktails. 18.21’s shrubs are all combinations – apple cardamom, blackberry peppercorn, watermelon mint, white jasmine and grapefruit. “We like to have really well-balanced flavors,” Koefad says, “that stand well on their own.” Koefad enjoys shrubs with soda water, which hearkens back to the days of 19th century field hands; you can use that classic mix as a simple mocktail. (The company is all about historical relevance, which explains the name — “the 18th Amendment enacted Prohibition, and the 21st Amendment repealed it,” she says.)

Craig Rudewicz, of Crude Bitters, also makes shrubs with complementary and contrasting flavors: watermelon and basil, apple and spice, pineapple and ginger, grapefruit and guajillo pepper, and seasonal blends.

Making shrubs doesn’t sound complicated. Think in terms of Colonial times and “farmers’ soda.” The name is rooted in pragmatism: “If a farmer couldn’t sell all the fruit,” says Rudewicz, “they would chop it up, throw it in a barrel, and cover it with cane sugar and vinegar. Come harvest time, it was the base for a refreshing drink – just like the Penn Dutch switchel, which features cider vinegar with either honey or maple syrup, only different.“

But what makes a shrub a shrub? “Vinegar, fruit and sugar,” says Dana Corey, owner of Inna Jam (get it?). “You have to have those three things.” Her first shrubs were simple: raspberry, strawberry. Citrus came next. Then quince shrub, “where the crazy floral flavors shine.” With notes of honey, flowers, and pear, it works beautifully with bourbon.

 Four bottles of shrubs. 
Crude Bitters makes shrubs with complementary and contrasting flavors: watermelon and basil, apple and spice, pineapple and ginger, grapefruit and guajillo pepper and seasonal blends. Photo courtesy of Crude Bitters.

It isn’t always fruit. One of Crude Bitter’s mainstays is cucumber shrub. “I figured it would come out tasting like sweet pickles,” Rudewicz admits. “It comes out this really refreshing, lightly vegetal shrub.” By itself, “it’s a quintessential late-spring, summer drink.” If you’re thinking of cocktails, then cucumber underscores notes in tequila and – you might have guessed it – gin.

The shrub’s ability to enhance subtle notes is a reason to try making one if you get a batch of perfect berries at the market or nick fabulous fruit from the kitchen. Why give it all to garnish?

If you’ve never played with shrubs, Corey recommends starting with a citrus. “The shrubs differ from citrus juices in their complexity.” Sub a grapefruit shrub for grapefruit juice, and you’re getting something with juice, vinegar’s acidic pop, and a nudge of sweetness. “Depending on your recipe, it might take the place of simple syrup ... but it depends on proportions.” There’s more to consider. “Because the vinegar is fermented, there’s a layer of funkiness to it. It’s very delicate...” The vinegar, she says, makes it more nuanced than juice.

Koefad agrees. “That acidity lends more depth, dimension and body to a cocktail.”

For Inna’s citrus shrubs, Corey uses the whole fruit — pith and all. As the pith cures, it adds a subtle bitter element. “I tasted a Paloma, one made with juice and one made with shrub … There were more layers of flavor in the [one made with] shrub.”

Don’t make assumptions about pairings. Naturally, 18.21’s chamomile works well with gin and champagne, “but it works well in whiskey drinks ... usually not a rye.” Koefad likes it with Basil Hayden, where it reveals hidden notes in the spirit.

If you want to make shrubs yourself, don’t feel you have to stop at the ordinary — Inna’s current lineup includes Hungarian pepper, Cherokee purple tomato and black mission fig.

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