Shrubs in Cocktails
Due in large part to the cocktail renaissance of the last few years, shrubs have come screaming into the present from an era when the United States was but a gleam in the Founders’ eyes. Shrubs are an old method of preservation, and when done properly, you can enjoy the fruits of summer’s labors in the dead of winter. They’re used in cocktails in a similar fashion to syrups. The component parts are a subject, a sweetener, and vinegar. We’ll break down how to do a basic shrub and what the rules are so that you can break them when you make your own. There’s a bit of science involved behind the scenes, and the whole process is based in fermentation, but don’t let that shake you. Making a shrub is as easy as discovering penicillin, when you get down to it.
Shrubs: Excellence in Three Parts
One of the most important adages of cocktails and mixology is that the cocktail is only as good as its weakest ingredient. While the personal taste of the public accounts for the lion’s share of what dominates a menu, this wisdom largely holds true with any matter culinary. A beautiful roast can be brought low by poor knife skills and a mockery of carving. A modest cup of tea can be elevated that much more by excellent local honey. While shrubs are just as rough and ready as a Bluecoat Minuteman, there’s no reason to not take the process seriously. Shrubs are incredibly responsive to the time you put into them, and are largely a blank canvas to play with.
Your basic steps are to clean and process your subject as needed, dredge them heavily in sugar, loosely cover and leave out in a cool, dry place. Once the subject begins to break down, fermentation will begin, with yeast swooping in to eat all of that delicious sugar and turn it into alcohol. Before that party gets too crazy, introducing vinegar effectively kills the process. After mixing together, you strain off the solids, and what you’re left with is a fairly shelf-stable, refreshing beverage. Some methods and recipes will call for cooking, but the whole point of a shrub is to lock in the fresh qualities of a harvest, not cook them down. While you’re more than welcome to help incorporation of flavors along with cooking, that’s more of a syrup than a shrub.
The Shrub Subject
There are no real rules in terms of what you can and cannot turn into a shrub. The process is premised on fermentation, which is a naturally occurring phenomenon. Any sort of produce can be used, but certain things are better left untouched. I once cleared out my apartment building attempting a Durian shrub. A colleague complained that a smoked red onion shrub I made tasted like salad dressing (they were wrong, it was delightful, and went exquisitely well with Mezcal). Fruit is generally the best subject, as its sugar content makes it easy for the microscopic creatures involved in fermentation to get to work. That said, once you’ve made a few, the garden’s the limit. Berries and fruits are perfect subjects to start with before trying things like onion, cucumber or carrot. Of special note is that ‘seconds’ or the produce that isn’t especially aesthetically pleasing is not only cheap but perfect for shrubs. Farmers’ Markets are a great place to start if you’re looking to set aside a massive amount of Strawberry shrub in July on the cheap for your party in February.
The Shrub Sweetener
It’s always going to be some sort of dry sugar, as fermentation needs air to help it along. However, you’re not stuck with granulated and processed white sugar. There are Demerara and Turbinado and brown sugar as well. When it comes down to writing your recipes and experimenting, the flavor profiles of sugar will play into how you work your alchemy. Brown sugar and blueberries is an amazing combination, while that same molasses character may overwhelm weaker flavors, like a pear. There’s no real wrong answer, but the more effort you put into your shrubs, the bigger the reward.
The Shrub Vinegar
The vinegar is introduced to kill the fermentation process, and to help act as a preservative. However, the vinegar is probably the most interesting part of the equation. Not only is there a veritable universe of vinegar out there, but because they are incredibly easy to infuse with herbs, the combinations for your shrubs are just about infinite. The infusion process is largely going to be the same as with alcohol. Additionally, combinations of different vinegar make for some wonderful flavors. The buttery notes of a white wine vinegar can pair really well with an apple cider vinegar. Throwing herbs into the mix allows for endless combinations. Pear Rosemary, Strawberry Thyme, Mango Sage, whatever your little heart desires. Take a peek at the Flavor Bible and go to town.
The Shrub Basics
For this demo recipe, we’re using Ecuadorian Blackberries, or Mora berries from the local market, which we cleaned and de-stemmed. They’re incredibly tart but equally flavorful. The sharp flavors will play well with the plentiful Aguardiente in Ecuador. Shrubs are not an exact science, as you’re dealing with a lot of variables, from the sugar content of your subject to how happy the ambient yeast is to what the climate may be. However, the methodology is going to remain the same throughout. Just keep an eye on your science experiment.
Clean and process your subject; berries will break down without much help, but an apple or a pineapple will need to be sliced up to give the magic some room to work.
Place subject in a container, cover with sugar of choice.
Seal container, then shake to fully dredge the subject in sugar.
Open container, pour a thin layer of sugar over top of subject and loosely cover.
Place in a cool, dry place, and allow to sit.
* Once bubbles appear (this may take as much as three days or longer, especially with vegetables), pour in chosen vinegar; this is done both to dissolve and incorporate the remaining sugar and also done to taste, so go slowly. You can’t take the vinegar out once it’s in. Remember that you’re dealing with roughly three equal parts.
Mix aggressively and strain.
* If you’re having difficulty with incorporation, you can cheat a bit and heat the mixture to allow the sugar to dissolve. However, heat is going to change the flavors a bit, so again, this is largely to the discretion of personal taste.
Place in a sealed container and store in the refrigerator. This will last for at least 6 months, although the fresh characteristics will diminish over time.
Paired with an understanding of flavor and infusions, you can create a rainbow of shrubs and create time capsules of flavor. It’s a wonderful feeling to watch the snow fly sideways in early March while you’re sipping on a bourbon strawberry sour riff.
My favorite use for this particular shrub has been mixing a bit of it with the local beer for a slightly sour and fruity twist on a shandy.
Let us know how your science experiment goes!