“Imagine that it’s 1780, and there is no electricity, no railroads, and you’re a locavore because you have to be,” began Austin craft-cocktail guru Bill Norris at the 2013 Austin Food & Wine Festival. “You’ve got to figure out a way to preserve your fruit and vegetable crop.
You would have canned most of it, and you might have made some of it into wine (or even distilled some of the wine), but you might also have made something called a shrub—a fruit-infused drinking vinegar that you could use to flavor water, kind of like a precursor to soft drinks.”
Most cocktails, Bill explains, are comprised of a liquor plus sweet and sour elements. “Lime and lemon are delicious, but they can get old,” he says. That’s where vinegars come in. “Hugely popular in southeast Asia, drinking vinegars add a complex element to cocktails.”
To make a peach shrub, combine 1 cup chopped peaches with 1 cup sugar; cover and leave on the countertop. The sugar will immediately begin pulling the water from the fruit, making syrup. After two days, strain the solids from the syrup and add ½ cup to 1 cup champagne vinegar. “You want the vinegar to linger like a ghost,” says Bill.
Turns out you can make shrubs from all kinds of fruits and vegetables, and the method is roughly the same: Chop your fruit or vegetable, add an equal amount of sugar, and let the syrup form for about two days. Strain out the solids, and add roughly the same amount of good vinegar as your fruit or vegetables.
Since discovering shrubs, I’ve gone a bit shrub-crazy, and I’ve made peach shrub, ginger shrub, guava shrub, strawberry shrub, mango shrub, and blueberry shrub, using combinations of balsamic vinegar, champagne vinegar, apple-cider vinegar, and specialty vinegars from Con Olio a shop in Austin whose products are amazing. My favorites so far are the pineapple shrub, peach shrub, and strawberry shrub; all three taste zingy and fruity, with a kiss of tang from the vinegar.
To make a delicious anytime drink, add a tablespoon or so of shrub to a glass of water, either still or sparkly.
Shrubs make great cocktail bases, too—especially refreshing in the summer. Personally, I like to shake the heck out of my drinks in a cocktail shaker loaded with lots of ice, but you can simply mix the ingredients in a glass full of ice, too. Here are some recipes to try.
Bill’s Bourbon Blast
- 1 ½ ounces bourbon
- 1 ounce ginger liqueur (Domaine de Canton is a good brand)
- ½ ounce peach shrub
- three dashes Angostura bitters.
Bill’s Bitter Mary
- 1 ½ ounces white rum
- 1 ounce Aperol (an Italian aperitif that tastes similar to Campari)
- ½ ounce strawberry shrub.
- Top with club soda and serve in a tall glass
This one is inspired by the Vinegaroon served at Contigo, a restaurant in Austin.
- 1 ½ ounces tequila (or mezcal, my preference)
- ½ ounce pineapple shrub
- ½ ounce lemon juice
- ½ ounce Herbsaint (a liqueur, originally used as an absinthe substitue) that adds a slight licorice note