Articles in Cocktails

shochu cocktails

This year, you can transform your ordinary Thanksgiving dinner into an extraordinary one — not with food, but with drink. Shake up cocktail hour with shochu, a delicious distilled alcoholic beverage from Japan that’s caught the fancy of American bartenders.

Shochu is often wrongly described by Americans as a kind of vodka. Although it comes in a variety of flavors, it is lower in alcohol and calories than vodka or other distilled alcoholic beverages.

Shochu production in Japan began around the 16th century in certain regions. The famous production areas include the large southern island of Kyushu and the neighboring small islands of Amami, Okinawa and Iki. The warm winter climate in these areas is not well-suited for producing good quality sake, as this rice wine requires very cold winter months for proper fermentation.

Shochu production involves two steps. The first step is to produce alcohol in a way that is very similar to that of sake. Koji, the magic mold that creates flavorful enzymes and sugars from starch, is inoculated into steamed rice to produce a fermentation starter. The starter is mixed with yeast, spring water and the selected and cooked main ingredient: usually rice, barley, sweet potato, potato, buckwheat or sugar cane. It is left to ferment for about 14 days. This is half the fermentation period for sake, and so this brewed batch is very rough and wild in taste, texture and aroma. The second step, distillation, removes all sugars and roughness from the brew, and transforms it into a clean, clear and elegant alcoholic beverage.

Top-quality shochu is distilled only once. This is called Honkaku shochu. Single distillation leaves each shochu with a delightful hint of the distinctive taste and fragrance of its base ingredient. After distillation, the alcohol content approaches 80 proof (40% alcohol). Then, it is diluted to about 50 proof (25% alcohol). Honkaku shochu can be served straight-up or on the rocks in order to enjoy the full flavor of each variety.

Another less expensive type of shochu is usually made from lesser quality ingredients and goes through multiple distillations. The resulting shochu is deprived of the unique and sometimes funky taste and fragrance of the real thing. After multiple distillations, the alcohol content approaches 160 to 180 proof (80% to 90% alcohol). This is then watered down to around 72 proof (36% alcohol). In Japan, it is this less expensive shochu that is used to make cocktails at bars and restaurants.

But craft-conscious bartenders in the United States are taking a different approach. Jesse Falowitz, founder of Nehan Spirits LLC in New York, manages the production of his own award-winning brand of barley-based shochu, Mizunomai, in Japan and imports and markets it in the U.S. For this breed of bartenders, Falowitz says, “it is important to preserve the unique flavor of each spirit. whether it be shochu, whisky, brandy or gin, in the cocktails that they craft.”

For your Thanksgiving gatherings, reach for Honkaku shochu to enjoy the wonderful flavors of high quality shochu alone or in delightful cocktails. Here are the flavor profiles for some types of high quality shochu.

Imo-shochu, made from sweet potato, comes from Kagoshima Prefecture on Kyushu Island, a major sweet potato producing area. When you sip Imo-shochu, you can’t miss the hint of slight funky, sweet potato flavor and fragrance. Once you are hooked, you will love it.

Kokuto-shochu, made from sugar cane, comes from the small Amami Islands south of Kyushu Prefecture toward Okinawa. Kokuto-shochu will remind you of good-quality rum, but on average it is 12 percentage points lower in alcohol. Kokuto-shochu has a round mouth-feel and a subtle sweetness. It also is unique in being slightly alkaline, while all other distilled alcohol has a neutral pH. The sugar cane grown in the Amami Islands’ coral-rich fresh water is responsible for this unusual characteristic.

Kome-shochu, made from rice, comes from Kumamoto Prefecture. Kome-shochu presents a flowery and rich flavor similar to what you find in some sake.

Omugi-shochu, made from barley, may surprise you with a hint of banana, cantaloupe and caramel flavor.

Finally, if you are not a cocktail person, this is how we enjoy Honkaku shochu in Japan.

1. Mix 6 parts shochu with 4 parts cold water. This is called mizu-wari.

2. Mix 6 parts shochu with 4 parts warm water at about 98º degrees F. This is called oyu-wari. Warming shochu in this way allows the fragrant aroma to burst forth.

3. Or, try it simply on the rocks or straight up.

However, I encourage you to get creative with shochu cocktails, such as the following recipes provided by Jesse Falowitz.

Ringo, I Love You

This will be a smash hit for your Thanksgiving party, and for any gathering in deep autumn. This cocktail is characterized by a crisp and refreshing character with a delicate sweetness and hint of spice. Ringo in this case is “apple” in Japanese, not a member of the Beatles.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1 serving

Ingredients

1/2 red apple, plus a few thin slices for garnish

2 1/2 ounces Mizunomai shochu or other Honkaku shochu

1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice

1/4 ounce maple syrup

1 dash of cinnamon powder

Directions

1. Core and cut the apple with skin into coarse pieces.

2. Add the apple half, shochu, lemon juice and maple syrup into a cocktail shaker or tall glass. Press the apple with a muddler, like the one used for making a mojito, to extract the most juice.

3. When the juice has been pressed out from the apple, close the shaker with the shaker top and shake vigorously.

4. Remove the shaker top and strain the cocktail through a cocktail strainer into a rocks glass in which you have placed a large piece of ice or two.

5. Garnish the cocktail with thin slices of apple. Lightly dust the apple with cinnamon powder and serve.

 

Neguloni, a Shochu Negroni

This is a Japanese twist on the Italian classic. This satisfying cocktail has smooth texture, a tinge of bitterness, sexy deep-dark red color, and pleasant buttery texture. You can make this cocktail without the grapefruit bitters, but it enhances the flavor of the cocktail, and the inclusion is highly recommended.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Yield: 1 serving

Ingredients

1 1/2 ounces Mizunomai shochu or other Honkaku shochu

3/4 ounces sweet vermouth

1/4 ounce Campari

3 drops grapefruit bitters

1 peel of grapefruit skin

Directions

1. Pour the shochu, sweet vermouth, Campari and grapefruit bitters into a rocks glass in which you have placed a one large ice cube.

2. Stir the glass with a cocktail spoon for 10 seconds to chill and slightly dilute the alcohol.

3. Remove a long grapefruit zest from the grapefruit with a peeler and lightly squeeze the oils over the cocktail.

4. Garnish the drink with the grapefruit zest twist and enjoy.

Main photo: The Ringo, left, and Neguloni cocktails.  Credit: Jesse Falowitz

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Liqueur in martini glasses. Credit: iStock / IJzendoorn

Chambord is a luscious, expensive French liqueur made from black raspberries. Shambord, made from blackberries and bourbon, has a similar flavor but with a rowdy American edge, and it’s a lot easier on the pocketbook. Also, if you care about such things, you can pride yourself on its being locally sourced (if you can get local blackberries).

I first encountered the idea — not under that name, which I just made up — about 15 years ago in Kentucky, where a chef had created a sauce by marinating blackberries (as well as strawberries and blueberries, I believe) in bourbon. Black mulberries, which lack the faint bitter edge of blackberries, would be good too — if you can obtain them; they’re scarce in the U.S. In fact, I suppose just about any berry would be good with bourbon: raspberries, huckleberries, possibly even beebleberries.

Naturally, it’s best to make Shambord with fresh blackberries, but frozen berries are acceptable. As for the bourbon, it needn’t be Booker’s or 17-year-old Eagle Rare. Basically, you want any bourbon with a good heady aroma of vanilla and caramel, which goes particularly well with berries.

The Kentucky chef put his sauce on ice cream and fresh fruit, as I recall, and Shambord is good served that way as well, but I like it in wine cocktails. You can add it to sparkling wine as you would crème de cassis to make a Kir cocktail. And because it’s denser than wine, you can layer it with white wine to make a sort of two-tone pousse-café — a silly idea, and possibly more fuss than it’s worth, but a fun one.

Shambord is also excellent on its own as a liqueur, but in that case I’d consider increasing the quantity of whiskey in the base recipe a little, from ¼ cup up to as much as ⅓ cup.

Shambord Liqueur

Shambord with a Fakir cocktail. Credit: Charles Perry

Shambord with a Fakir cocktail. Credit: Charles Perry

Prep time: 3 minutes

Total time: 3 minutes

Yield: About 1½ cups

Ingredients

12 ounces blackberries

¼ cup bourbon

½ cup sugar

Directions

Put the blackberries, bourbon and sugar in a food processor and puree until smooth. Sieve the liquid from the seeds and store it in a lidded container. It will keep in the refrigerator for at least a month.

Fakir Cocktail

This is just a fake Kir cocktail.

Prep time: 1½ minutes

Total time: 1½ minutes

Yield: 1 cocktail

Ingredients

⅔ cup sparkling wine

⅓ tablespoon Shambord

Directions

Put ⅓ cup wine into a champagne flute. Carefully spoon in the Shambord, making sure that the champagne doesn’t bubble over. Add the remaining wine. When the bubbles subside, gently stir to mix.

Two-Tone Wine

Prep time: 2 to 3 minutes

Total time: 2 to 3 minutes

Yield: 1 cocktail

Ingredients

2 tablespoons Shambord

1½ cups dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc

Directions

Pour the Shambord into a large wineglass. Suck up some of the wine in a bulb baster and, while holding a spoon under the flow to slow it down, drip it onto the inside of the glass. The Shambord is so much denser than the wine that it will tend to remain at the bottom. Repeat until all the wine is transferred into the glass — as the layer of wine thickens, you will be able to work faster.

Serve, and when your guest is adequately impressed, stir the Shambord lightly into the wine.

Main photo: Liqueur in martini glasses. Credit: iStock / IJzendoorn

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Chanterelle cocktail. Credit: Wendy Petty

This year, I toasted the end of the Colorado mushroom season with a cocktail made with chanterelle-infused syrup. A mushroom drink may sound unusual, but the floral and fruity tasty of chanterelles lends them well to cocktails, and it provided a fitting end to what be recorded in my journal as the Year of the Chanterelles.

While mushrooms of all kinds can be found during the warmer months in Colorado, the bulk of the choice edible species grow in the mountains during a brief window at the end of summer. My heart normally belongs to porcini, the hidden jewel of the Rockies. For some reason, the porcini were not as abundant as usual this year. Some speculate that the ground was too cold, others that spring ran too long, or that the rains came too early for a good fruiting. Whatever the reason, the forests that normally boom with porcini were largely silent. I was forced to spend my time outside of my tried-and-true spots, to explore new trails.

Mushroom hunters are funny. When we aren’t finding many mushrooms, we try to convince ourselves that we do it just for the pleasure of being outside, or learning to identify new species, or to go home with just enough mushrooms to make one nice meal. But the thing that raises mushroom hunting to the heights of an obsession is the rare moments when one can find mushrooms like gold at the end of the rainbow. It is a rush. To find a jackpot cache of mushrooms always reminds me there is magic in this world.

As with most of my best finds in the forest, this year I stumbled upon the biggest cache of chanterelles I’ve ever seen when I stepped off the trail to take a bathroom break. While tip-toeing through the kinnikinnick, I noticed the unmistakable ruffles of orange at my feet. Barely able to contain my excitement, I excitedly whispered, “chanter-stinking-elles!” As my eyes scanned out across the mixed pine forest, I saw waves of chanterelles floating out as far as I could see. There were enough mushrooms in that one spot to enjoy for weeks without having to worry about over-harvesting.

petty-chanterelle2

petty-chanterelle2
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Wild chanterelles. Credit: Wendy Petty

I’ve not had the best luck hunting chanterelles in the past, which may be partly due to my porcini obsession and the fact that porcini and chanterelles grow in different types of forests. There is a certain point in learning to hunt a mushroom when their pattern firmly sets in your brain, and that’s when something shifts. All successful foraging is about pattern recognition.

This was the year that chanterelles became firmly fixed in my mind. Almost instantly, and even from a distance, I can now spot their particular tangerine beige, the uneven curl of their margins, as well as their doughy feel in my hand. Most important, though, is their scent. The fragrance of chanterelles is unlike anything else. I’m quite certain that for the last course of my death row meal, I’d like to finish with a facial steam of the scent of chanterelle mushrooms.

Some people say that chanterelles smell of apricots. I have a friend who swears that they smell exactly like Sweden. Do a quick search on the Internet and you will quickly see that the most common adjective to describe chanterelles is “earthy.” Welcome to meaningless food words 101. Earthy, second only to nutty in uselessness for describing the taste of a food. I will concede that all mushrooms have flavor elements of dirt and decomposition. But chanterelles possess none of the heavy crumbling wood and peat tastes of morels or porcini. Chanterelles are light and bright, fruity and floral. Have you ever been deep in the woods and caught a flash of light out of the corner of your eye, maybe a sprite or fairy? Yeah, that’s chanterelle. It’s the fine French perfume of the forest, refined and fancy, a celebration, a high note. To my nose, chanterelles smell of a sweet potato that has slow-roasted in the oven until its sugars start to ooze. They also have something waxy about their aroma, like a box of crayons sitting in the sun.

This was the first year that I’ve found enough chanterelles to eat them every night for weeks, pack loads of them into the freezer, and also experiment with them in cooking. Sometimes it’s just fun to play around with an ingredient. I went a little crazy, made chanterelle crème brulee and a chanterelle cake with chanterelle buttercream and candied chanterelles on top. Did I go off the deep end into the orange? Yes, perhaps. But I got to see some of the potential of chanterelle mushrooms beyond just eating them sautéed in butter, which remains my favorite way to eat them.

Chanterelles have their own spirit

The biggest success of my chanterelle experiments was the candied chanterelles. This strikes me as particularly odd since I’ve no real love of sweets. Of all the recipes I made, those candied chanterelles best held that magical fragrance of freshly picked mushrooms. And they came with a bonus, the perfumed syrup that they cooked in, which I wasn’t about to throw away.

What do most people I know do with a novel syrup they’ve welcomed into the kitchen. The friends in my crowd aren’t really pancake people. They’re more the type to dump syrup into a cocktail, so I followed suit.

Now, I know what you’re thinking — a mushroom cocktail? It sounds rather extreme. But remember how some people describe chanterelles as smelling and tasting like apricots? Now, give the idea of the cocktail another try. You can make it doubly flavorful if you use vodka that you’ve infused with chanterelles as well. If you still can’t move beyond the idea of fungally-infused cocktails, you might prefer to try the syrup and candied mushrooms atop some really good vanilla ice cream.

One final note of caution. Chanterelle mushrooms do have toxic look-alikes. As always, only eat mushrooms that you’ve identified with 100% certainty. If you are new to mushroom hunting, consider seeking out your local mushroom club, where you can go on mushroom forays with more experiences guides.

Candied Chanterelles

Yield: 4 servings

Prep time: 12 hours

Ingredients

½ cup tiny perfect chanterelles, or larger mushrooms torn into small pieces

¼ cup sugar

¼ cup water

Directions

1. Use a toothpick or the tip of a paring knife to pick or scrape any dirt off the mushrooms.

2. In a small pan, stir together the sugar and water, and gently heat them on medium until the syrup starts to bubble.

3. Add the mushrooms and use a spoon to stir and turn them so that every surface is touched with the hot syrup. After one minute, turn off the stove and let the mushrooms and syrup sit at room temperature overnight.

Because of the water content of the mushrooms, both the candied mushrooms and the syrup need to be refrigerated.

Chanterelle Cocktail

Yield: 1 serving

Prep time: 5 minutes

Ingredients

1 ounce chanterelle syrup

1 ounce vodka

3 ounces cold sparkling water

1 candied chanterelle

Directions

Gently stir together the chanterelle syrup and vodka. Add the sparkling water, and stir the cocktail together one more time. Serve the chanterelle cocktail with a candied mushroom bobbing about in the bubbles.

Main photo: Chanterelle cocktail. Credit: Wendy Petty

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The Humboldt Highball cocktail alongside a bottle of Byrrh and a glass of the aperitif at Denver's BSide. Credit: Ruth Tobias

No, Byrrh isn’t some murky variant spelling of beer; in fact, it’s wine. More precisely, Byrrh Grand Quinquina — to use its full name — is a French aperitif that’s been showing up in bars around the United States after gathering dust in obscurity for decades. Based on the red wines of Roussillon, France, as well as fortified grape juice, it’s flavored with a blend of botanicals, primarily cinchona bark (which contains quinine — hence the name), to strike a refreshing balance between fruitiness and bitterness.

Thanks to Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz — the cool kids’ importer these days — Byrrh is now available in nearly all 50 states. The more I began to spot it on cocktail menus around Denver, where I live, the more curious I grew as to its allure and applications. Three local bartenders were gracious enough to explain it all for me.

The patio pounder

For Alexandra Geppert, who handles operations at The BSide — a funky, free-wheeling new hangout in Denver’s Uptown — Byrrh’s raspberry and nutty flavors lend themselves to easy-breezy libations such as the Humboldt Highball, which also contains simple syrup, lemon juice and club soda.

Featured on the late-summer drink list, it drank like a zippy pop that, she joked, “You could have 40 of in one sitting.” But for cooler weather, Geppert suggests deepening the flavor with a distinctly herbal liqueur. Here is BSide bartender Daniel Bewley’s recipe:

Humboldt Hibyrrhnation

Yield: 1 serving

Prep Time: 2 minutes

Ingredients

A Byrrh cocktail from Bistro Vendôme in Denver. Credit: Ruth Tobias

The Byrrh Martini, left, and Black Spring from Bistro Vendôme in Denver. Credit: Ruth Tobias

2 ounces Byrrh

¾ ounce Leopold Bros. Three Pins Alpine Herbal Liqueur

½ ounce lemon juice

½ ounce simple syrup

Club soda

Directions

1. Shake the first four ingredients together in a cocktail shaker. Strain over ice into a Collins glass. Top with club soda.

Geppert also loves to fancify the tavern tradition of a shot and a beer chaser by offering a more cultivated pairing: “a craft beer and a taster.” To that end, she proposes sipping a glass of Byrrh, with its round mouthfeel, alongside a contrastingly “crisp beer, maybe one with a little bitterness.”

To that end, she proposes sipping a glass of Byrrh, with its round mouthfeel, alongside a contrastingly “crisp beer, maybe one with a little bitterness,” say a blonde ale or a pilsner.

The neo-martini

At Bistro Vendôme, a beloved French fixture in downtown Denver, bartender Jason Morden has been having a field day with Byrrh for the past few months. He recommends drinking it over ice with lemon zest before dinner, because “citrus really makes it pop”; afterward, he might pair it with a bit of milk chocolate.

And because to his palate “it’s reminiscent of Vermouth Rouge,” he also considers it “an amazing counterpart to gin.” Here’s his “hot and boozy” twist on a martini:

Byrrh Martini

Yield: 1 serving

Prep Time: 2 minutes

Ingredients

2 ounces dry rye gin

1 ounce Byrrh

½ ounce lemon juice, plus peel for garnish twist

Directions

1. Shake gin, Byrrh and lemon juice together in a cocktail shaker. Pour into a martini glass and garnish with a lemon twist.

The rye sidekick

You’ll notice that the gin in the previous cocktail is made with rye, the spiciness of which nicely balances the sweetness of Byrrh. Morden uses that to his advantage in another cocktail, this one based on rye whiskey:

Black Spring

Yield: 1 serving

Prep Time: 2 minutes

Ingredients

1½ ounces rye whiskey

1 ounce Byrrh

1 ounce amaro-style bitter

2½ to 3 ounces ginger beer

Luxardo cherries

Directions

1. Over ice in a Collins glass, stir the first four ingredients together. Garnish with Luxardo cherries on a toothpick.

Meanwhile, Kevin Burke — beverage director at sibling hot spots Colt & Gray and Ste. Ellie — compares Byrrh favorably to another fortified wine, Dubonnet Rouge. “With a lot of products, some cocktail types get up in arms that the European version is different than the American one,” he said. (Take absinthe as a prime example.) “Unfortunately, Dubonnet falls into this category for me. So when I see Dubonnet called for in a recipe, I have found great success in substituting Byrrh.” For example, “it shines in a Deshler Cocktail, which is great when you’re in the mood for a Manhattan but also want something new.”

Word to the lightweight: Burke likes a high-proof rye in the following recipe. Sure, “Rittenhouse 100 or Wild Turkey 101 will do in a pinch — but Willett 110 Proof or Thomas H. Handy Sazerac is worth the splurge.”

Deshler Cocktail

Yield: 1 serving

Prep Time: 3 minutes

Ingredients

1¼ ounces high-proof rye

1¼ ounces Byrrh

¼ ounce Peychaud’s Bitters

1 teaspoon Cointreau

Orange twist for garnish

Directions

1. Chill a small cocktail glass.

2. Add cracked ice to a mixing glass, then add all ingredients except the orange twist and stir for 30 seconds. Strain into chilled cocktail glass.

3. Pinch the orange twist over the drink to express oils, then add and enjoy.

Main photo: The Humboldt Highball cocktail alongside a bottle of Byrrh and a glass of the aperitif at Denver’s BSide. Credit: Ruth Tobias

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The Jack-o-Potion combines cachaça and cranberry. Credit: Owl's Brew.

Halloween may mean trick or treating for the kids, but as adults we also like to get into the holiday spirit (or spirits, as the case may be). If you are thinking of hosting a fun cocktail party for your friends, how do you really blow them away? With delicious treats and cocktails, of course. Anyone can serve wine, or a simple vodka soda, but these fun and festive drinks will leave a lasting impression on your guests.

The liqueurs below easily pair with a few other ingredients to give your guests a great treat this Halloween.

Owl’s Brew is the first ready-to-pour tea mixer — it is fresh brewed in micro-batches and all three flavors are designed to pair with a wide range of spirits, as well as beer and wine. This “tea crafted for cocktails” is making craft cocktails accessible to the at-home mixologist.

Pick Your Poison

2 parts Owl’s Brew Pink & Black

1 part white rum

Garnish: Orange slice and strawberry

Brew-Haha

2 parts Owl’s Brew The Classic

1 part tequila

Shake with jalapeño slices

Spooky Garnish: Green sugar rim

If you are looking to put your mixologist skills to the test and want some nontraditional recipes and new spirits to try, we have pulled together some other interesting recipes. Cachaça is one of the fastest growing spirits in the country, so why not test these recipes during a fun holiday. Everyone will be impressed with your newfound skills this Halloween.

The Witches Martini combines cachaça, apple cider, elderflower liqueur and lime juice. Credit: Owl's Brew.

The Witches Martini combines cachaça, apple cider, elderflower liqueur and lime juice. Credit: Owl’s Brew.

Witches Martini

2 ounces cachaça (Cuca Fresca Prata used here)

2½ ounces fresh apple cider

½ ounce elderflower liqueur

½ ounce fresh lime juice

Combine all ingredients in an ice-filled shaker and shake well. Strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with a cinnamon stick.

Jack-o-Potion 

This amazing cocktail is simple, but definitely a crowd pleaser. It is deliciously light and also very aromatic. Light the tip of the rosemary garnish for extra flare!

2 ounces cachaça

2 ounces cranberry juice

1 ounce fresh lime juice

1 ounce simple syrup (1 part sugar, 1 part water)

Combine all ingredients in an ice-filled shaker. Shake well and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a fresh piece of rosemary with a fresh cranberry on the end.

Mama’s Bite Margarita 

This tequila is infused with pineapple, mango and chili peppers, which gives it a nice kick. Credit: Owl's Brew.

This tequila is infused with pineapple, mango and chili peppers, which gives it a nice kick. Credit: Owl’s Brew.

If you are really interested in kicking it up a notch, this drink is from Mama’s Boy brands. Its tequila not only tastes smooth, but has a nice kick and flavor to it since it’s infused with pineapple, mango and chili peppers.

2 ounces Mama’s Boy tequila

1 teaspoon agave

½ ounce pineapple juice

½ ounce lime juice

Shake and strain over ice with a  sweet and spicy chili rim

Main photo: The Jack-o-Potion combines cachaça and cranberry juice. Credit: Owl’s Brew.

 

 

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Shrubs, or drinking vinegars, are concentrates that can be used to make cocktails and other drinks as well as ad flavor to other dishes. Credit: Brooke Jackson

With the continued interest in fermentation and increased popularity in drinks such as kombucha on the rise, other types of unusual beverages are getting attention. One of these is shrubs.

Ever since a meal at Pok Pok in Portland, Oregon, revealed my adoration for drinking vinegars (aka shrubs), I’ve been on the lookout for the tarty, fruity concentrate wherever I’ve roamed. Finally, at a recent San Francisco Bay area food event, I saw a demure woman standing in a corner pouring tiny tastes of her homemade shrubs.

Christina Merkes, a classically trained chef and entrepreneur, had hit on some winning combinations of fruits, herbs and vinegar that drew a crowd to her like bees swarming the hive. The fig vanilla shrub had the deep flavor of that fall fruit, while the blood orange cardamom was a spicy citrus mouthful. and the cabernet was a smooth wine-country symphony. Merkes has a knack for unusual combinations of local, seasonal fruits and herbs. And she is onto something, as more and more mixologists, bartenders and home cooks explore the age-old process of making drinking vinegars and shrubs.

Shrubs started as means of food preservation

The custom began before the age of refrigeration, when fruit was mixed with sugar and vinegar for preservation. The resulting drink was served for medicinal purposes, as a fever reducer and blood thinner, and used as a replacement for alcohol as well as a mixer for cocktails. Smugglers added fruit and sugar to tainted barrels of rum they had hidden in the ocean as a way to mask the seawater flavor, and colonialists mixed fruit and sugar with vinegar as a way to preserve the harvest.

Pok Pok chef Andy Ricker came back from a trip to Southeast Asia, where drinking vinegars are a commonly quaffed beverage, and he put them on the menu at his restaurant. He felt the tart tonics would be the perfect foil for his spicy Thai street food, and they’ve proved wildly popular. He is most frequently credited with starting the shrub and drinking vinegar trend in the U.S.

Merkes was inspired to try her hand at making shrubs after a friend raved about a cocktail she’d had at a bar in wine country that contained pomegranate shrub mixed with bourbon and jalapeno. So Merkes embarked on a path of discovery, testing and mixing, balancing tart and sweet, and using her chef’s sharpened palate to come up with unusual and flavorful fruit, vegetable and herb combinations. She found basic recipes online, then followed her taste buds for new flavors to create.

One such recipe heats the vinegar for the infusion with fruit and the other uses a cold method. Merkes prefers not to use heat, saying the fresh fruit or vegetable flavor comes through better without it. Here are a few other tips from her for a successful shrub brew:

  • Sterilize the container before adding the shrub mixture.
  • Use white balsamic or apple cider vinegars or a combination of the two.
  • Use organic sugar, either white or turbinado, depending on the color of the fruit or vegetable.
  • Use only fruits or vegetables that are in season.
  • Store the shrub in the refrigerator, where it will keep for up to a year.
A variety of things can be made with shrubs, including a salad dressing (clockwise from right), a bowl of ice cream with fig vanilla flavor and fresh figs, a "soda" with apricot basil, and a dark and stormy using ginger drinking vinegar, rum, sparkling water, lime, mint and orange wheel. Credit: Brooke Jackson

A variety of things can be made with shrubs, including a salad dressing (clockwise from right), a bowl of ice cream with fig vanilla flavor and fresh figs, a “soda” with apricot basil, and a dark and stormy using ginger drinking vinegar, rum, sparkling water, lime, mint and orange wheel. Credit: Brooke Jackson

Drinking vinegars are incredibly versatile, beyond a refreshing thirst quencher or cocktail mixer, although that is what they are best known for. You can use them to make a soda by mixing 1 to 2 tablespoons of shrub into a glass of sparkling water and adding lots of ice, or add berry- or ginger-flavored shrubs to perk up iced tea. You can also swirl them into a glass of wine or sparkling wine for a riff on kir royale or wine spritzer. And shrubs are a natural in cocktails; barkeeps in the U.S. are coming up with all kinds of creative concoctions. For ideas, see what they are trying at Whiskey Soda Lounge at Pok Pok.

Merkes has come up with several cocktails, including one that is layered with bourbon on the bottom and top and black cherry and apricot basil shrubs in the middle and another that is a take on the original inspiration for her shrub business called The Marin Cruiser: pineapple melange shrub with vodka, lime, cilantro, jalapeno and sparkling water.

Other uses for shrubs include in salad dressings; whisked into mayonnaise for a sauce on fish; as a topping for ice cream, fresh fruit and cakes; and as a finishing sauce for grilled meat and poultry. Just as they used the technique in early America, drinking vinegar is a great way to capture the bounty of what is in the garden or at the farmers market right now before winter is upon us.

Merkes is still perfecting her recipes but expects to have her products available for sale in the next year. Pok Pok sells its drinking vinegar online, so if you don’t feel like making your own, check out one of their flavors.

As drinking vinegars continue to catch on, keep an eye out for them at local bars and specialty food shops. The flavors they can add to your favorite recipes will surely have you coming back for more.

Photo: Shrubs, or drinking vinegars, are concentrates that can be used to make cocktails and other drinks as well as add flavor to other dishes. Credit: Brooke Jackson

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He invented the mai tai, popularized the margarita and nachos, and introduced American diners to morel mushrooms, sunflower seeds and green peppercorns before most restaurants included them on the menu.

These culinary accomplishments are credited to Victor Bergeron Jr., born in San Francisco in 1902. He opened his first restaurant, Hinky Dinks, in Oakland in 1934, serving up stiff drinks for 15 cents, accompanied by standard fare — beef, pork or lamb alongside two vegetables, potatoes and two slices of French bread with butter — for 20 cents. Hoping to offer something more exciting, he visited the well-known restaurant Don the Beachcomber to observe its combination of rum drinks, Cantonese foods and South Seas atmosphere. Bergeron immediately recognized a winning formula, which he sought to replicate — and in characteristic fashion, believed he could outdo.

By 1938, Bergeron unveiled his own Polynesian restaurant, Trader Vic’s. With travel to Hawaii, Cuba, Tahiti, Japan, Hong Kong and Mexico, he began a nearly 50-year career in which he evangelized the island lifestyle, reimagined “exotic” cuisines and promoted the rums of the world. By the time of his death in 1984, he had opened well-loved and steadily patronized Trader Vic’s restaurants in San Francisco and Los Angeles, plus locations as far afield as Tokyo and London, Singapore and Munich.

The Apostle of Rum

Although Bergeron’s status as inventor of the mai tai is contested by some, journalist and gourmand Lucius Beebe unequivocally christened him “the apostle of rum,” a title well earned by Trader Vic’s extensive drink menus and the contents of his cookbooks. In the first, “Trader Vic’s Book of Food and Drink,” published in 1946, he writes simply, frankly and with palpable enthusiasm for rum in an opening section casually titled, “About Booze.”

Just as Julia Child taught wine, Bergeron insisted upon only high quality and carefully chosen ingredients, distinguishing rums by country of origin and preferred brands in every recipe. He also playfully recommends a slew of concoctions. “Tall ones,” like the Dr. Funk and Haote Pikia, are “for those who like to sit around and shoot the breeze and sip on a good-tasting drink.” Others are “for good old American guzzling” and getting buzzed in short order, such as the Flamingo, which calls for 1½ ounces Puerto Rican rum, a dash of Angostura bitters, a slice of cucumber rind and enough 7-Up to top off a 12-ounce glass.

In his introductory pages, Bergeron, who eventually took on the persona of Trader Vic himself, posits that rum’s unpopularity, at least relative to other spirits such as gin and scotch, was due to its colorful past in which it was “the favorite libation of pirates, sailors, massacring Indians, beachcombers and loose women.” He assured readers that rum had “risen to the ranks of respectability” and “become the favorite potion of millions of civilized people.” For all his groundbreaking, the Trader’s distinctions between “primitive” and “civilized” people, “native” ingredients and “American tastes” would remain a problematic and recurring theme.

Trader Vic’s ‘American’ Food

While his 1948 “Bartender’s Guide” became a standard mixology reference work, Trader Vic’s mark on American cuisine is less straightforward. Borrowing liberally, he combined ingredients, flavors, techniques and methods to form what one food critic described as “more Trader Vic’s food than anything else.” Bergeron vehemently defended the quality of American ingredients and wine against the supposed status afforded by the likes of Russian caviar and French wine. He at times embraced tradition, preparing a variety of dishes using “Chinese barbecue ovens,” which burned white oak logs, rendering what many diners noted as a mild but memorable smoky flavor.

At the same time, the Trader also embraced ready-prepared foods. While other leaders of the food world bemoaned the de-skilling of the American housewife, Bergeron argued that with the help of convenience food products home cooks were actually developing in the kitchen, becoming more able to prepare simple and delicious food. He confidently predicted that the quality of frozen food would improve, citing a frozen prefab chicken dish he had eaten, stating, “If I was the finest chef in the world I couldn’t do it better.” Furthermore, after tasting “green enchiladas in an out-of-the-way Mexican Village,” prepared with canned soup and canned chiles, he proclaimed, “Without cans you can’t live!”

Trader Vic’s world travels earned him a venerated position as one who brought “exotic” and “foreign” delights stateside. He took pride in modifying dishes so that they were more “sophisticated,” his description for better suited to the American palate. In “Trader Vic’s Pacific Island Cookbook,” published in 1968, he altered dishes from Mexico and Texas, taking out oil that he deemed too fatty and chiles he considered overly spicy. In tacos, he substituted chopped beef for shredded to align it with “American tastes.” He spoke of his gustatory creations not as visionary fusion cuisine or reimagined tradition, but as “American food,” a way of eating that he predicted would eventually lead the world. Sure of American potential, he’s quoted quipping, “Think of all those poor little Italians having to eat Italian food every day of the year.” He even took his dishes to the sky, bringing salads dressed with fruit, good-looking and tasty steaks and handmade mai tais to United Airlines flights in the early 1970s.

Understanding Trader Vic’s

Perhaps Lois Dwan, restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times, understood Victor Bergeron and his food best. In her numerous reviews of Trader Vic’s from the 1960s through the 1980s, she described him as neither snob nor purist, but simply dedicated to quality and a good time. Like others, she mused on what, if anything, was real or authentic about Bergeron’s persona, restaurants, drinks and food. She eventually concluded, “That the design is not particularly true does not matter.” She credited Bergeron’s culinary process, as he focused not on the structure of tradition or recipes, but rather “understanding the principle — the idea — of a flavor or procedure.” Grounded in what she called “understanding without condescension,” Dwan lauds Bergeron’s results as “one of the few original cuisines anywhere.”

In his 1983 review of Trader Vic’s, written to commemorate the restaurant approaching its 50th anniversary, Colman Andrews concurs. He summarizes the Trader Vic’s experience as “imaginative, eclectic, corny, comfortable, expensive, uneven and sometimes downright excellent. It is — always — great fun.”

The Trader Vic’s legacy lives on with U.S. locations in Emeryville, Calif., Portland, Ore., and Atlanta, as well as a number of international locations.

Main photo: Victor Bergeron Jr. may or may not have invented the mai tai, but he popularized tropical rum drinks. Credit: istockphoto.com

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The pop-up Gin & Tonics Garden at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

With the world’s largest collection of living plants, and its scientists working around the globe to preserve biodiversity, the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London is internationally renowned for its conservation work. Less well known, perhaps, is the fact that its 300-acre grounds harbor the ingredients for some darn good cocktails.

“Sweet cicely, or garden myrrh, is very fragrant, but it also has a natural sweetness so it’s good to pair with rhubarb,” says Jo Farish, founder of the Gin Garden, as she hands over a Strawberry Cup. The beguiling early summer concoction of strawberry-infused gin, homemade rhubarb-and-sweet-cicely cordial, and lemon juice is garnished with fresh strawberries, cucumber and edible flowers.

Summertime gin garden

The Gin Garden’s summer residence at Kew Gardens, where Farish and her team have turned a small greenhouse into a jungle-like bar serving up gin cocktails and tonics on weekends (Friday through Sunday) and British bank holidays, offers plenty of inspiration for mixologists.

“We’re taste-testing new ingredients as they come into season —  we’ve been infusing cherry gin, with more fruits and berries coming up, and the lavender and Roman chamomile growing over there will be used in drinks when they’re ready,” Farish says.

The cocktail menu, which changes weekly, “uses bits and pieces from the Kew Gardens, but we can’t use too much,” she says. “The ingredients are all things that are grown here, but these plants have to be preserved.”

Serving drinks based on what’s growing nearby is the focus of the Gin Garden, which Farish started in fall 2012 after a successful trial run making apple martinis for an event at a historic house and garden run by the U.K.’s National Trust from the apples, lavender and honey on the property’s grounds.

Her company, which has taken its traveling botanical bar to museums, flower shows, design fairs and other locations in and around London, melds Farish’s background in event planning and garden design — and, she says, some very British sensibilities.

Do-it-yourself gin

“British people are real gardeners and lots of people make their own gin. The two go hand in hand,” Farish says. “People are used to preserving (food) and having something to get through the winter.” She assures urban dwellers with more limited space that plenty of cocktail ingredients are easy to cultivate in a window box.

In addition to its pop-up bars, the Gin Garden also offers workshops on growing botanical ingredients at home and making infusions and syrups.

To make the infused gin that forms the base of  its refreshing Kew-cumber cocktail, for example, Farish recommends slicing up cucumbers like you would for a sandwich, filling up a Mason jar halfway with the vegetables and topping it off with gin.

“Sip it the next morning and see how it tastes,” Farish says. “If the flavor isn’t strong enough, just close the jar up and try it again the next morning.”

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Cocktail ingredients at the ready in the Gin & Tonics Garden, including fresh strawberries and gooseberries and The Herball's aromatic waters. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

A Gooseberry & Fennel cocktail is made from gin infused with the fennel that grows wild along the coast of Norfolk, in the east of England. The drink has a subtly acidic bite — and plenty of health benefits. “Gooseberries have vitamins A, B, C and antioxidants; they were actually used to ward off scurvy before citrus fruit was available in the U.K.,” Farish says.

The temporary Gin & Tonics Garden at Kew is part of the botanic garden’s summertime “Plantasia” festival, which includes a variety of activities, from a healing plants tour to a barefoot walk. The activities are aimed at introducing visitors to plants’ benefits “for body, mind, and soul.”

Benefit of plants

The passiflora tincture in the Rose Garden cocktail, for example, is said to be good for anxiety, while the namesake ingredient in the Elderflower Fizz is said to improve resistance to allergens. Angelica root, one of the six botanicals in the No. 3 London Dry Gin used to make the Kew cocktails, has long been employed in traditional medicine as a treatment for digestive issues.

“Nearly all plants have some kind of health benefit,” says Farish, who prefers to use a masticating or cold-press juicer for serious cocktail-making because it preserves more of the nutrients in fruits, vegetables and herbs.

Some of the Gin Garden’s drinks get an extra boost from a spritz of aromatic water before serving. The water is applied over the top of the glass with an old-fashioned perfume atomizer. Made by the London-based company The Herball, these aromatic waters are distilled using the same method as gin itself, retaining the complete essence of herbs and flowers like the chamomile spritzed over the Strawberry Cup or the geranium, rose and lavender that add a floral twist to the otherwise classic G&T.

“There are so many botanicals you can use with gin. It’s pretty limitless,” Farish says, mentioning her recent discovery of a small distillery in Cornwall that makes a violet leaf gin. “You really have free reign with ingredients compared to other drinks.”

Though gin is often thought of as a summertime tipple, Farish is already thinking ahead to the chillier seasons to come after the Kew pop-up bar closes its doors Sept. 7. “I’d like to do a winter gin garden,” she says. “Gin makes a great hot toddy with warming winter herbs and spices like ginger, sage and thyme.”

The Kew-cumber

Ingredients

  • 7 parts (35 milliliters) cucumber-infused No. 3 London Dry Gin (infuse your gin with sliced cucumbers for 48 hours)
  • 1 part (5 milliliters) lime juice
  • 1 part (5 milliliters) basil and mint syrup (simmer water and sugar to form a simple syrup then add herbs, keep on heat for 5 minutes, strain and bottle)
  • Top with freshly pressed (juiced) cumber juice that has been diluted with sparkling water -- 1 part cucumber juice to 10 parts sparkling water

Directions

  1. Fill a highball glass with ice and add the ingredients above, stir, garnish with a slice of cucumber and a sprig of mint.

* Recipe courtesy Jo Farish. Find more recipes at The Gin Garden.

Main photo: The pop-up Gin & Tonics Garden at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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