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.
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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.
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