Cocktail-lovers reach for “shrubs” during the colder months

By / Wine + Drinks / December 27th, 2016 / 7

No matter how lovely the fall season might be, it’s still hard to let go of those fresh summer flavours. Goodbye, peaches. Goodbye, melons. Berries, I think I’ll miss you most of all.

Many of us find some comfort in imported fruit through the winter, even though we’re quick to complain that the flavours just aren’t as robust. That’s part of the reason that, when it comes to drinks, a lot of crafty bartenders have decided to just say no to off-season fruit. Instead of muddling third-rate, pale raspberries into their drinks, cocktail-lovers are reaching for “shrubs” — an ancient method for preserving seasonal fruit that involves dissolving sugar and fruit into vinegar.

So far, nothing strange about that, since vinegar is a common preservative agent. But, unlike with pickles (where we discard the brine), the vinegar is an integral part of the shrub. In fact, sometimes it’s called “drinking vinegar.” And it’s used — vinegar and all — as a cocktail ingredient, by bartenders who’ve discovered that the sharp and sour properties of a shrub are actually an asset. Used sparingly, of course. This delicate art has been mastered by Neila MacIntyre, bar manager at Calgary’s Ox and Angela.

“If you make a good, balanced shrub, you don’t need to use much,” says MacIntrye. “Usually less than an ounce. But it’s a potent combination of savoury tanginess and sweet fruit flavour which can balance your cocktail almost immediately with almost any spirit.”

That’s because vinegar-based shrubs provide the acidity that most cocktails need to achieve balance but, as an added bonus, tend to have a more complex depth of flavour than, say, sour mix. And, while few bartenders would be likely to eliminate citrus from their cocktail programs, shrubs can be a useful stop-gap for times when the price of citrus soars. Plus, unlike squeezing citrus every day or fresh for every drink, shrub-making is a simple process that you do once, when the fruit is in season. “You can make it in large batches, bottle some and, if you want, you can even freeze some,” says MacIntyre, “The great thing is that I find it tastes exactly the same as the day I made it.”

Berries are, by far, the most popular raw ingredient used in shrubs, but bartenders are playing with everything from bananas to fennel and tomatoes to jackfruit as the trend continues to build. That’s next-level stuff, though. To get our feet wet, MacIntyre provided a starter recipe for a simple strawberry/sage shrub, which she came up with in honour of her favourite flavour at her local artisanal ice cream parlour.

strawberry sage shrub

1 cup of puréed fresh strawberries
5 sprigs of sage
1 cup sugar
1 cup apple cider vinegar

Bring all ingredients — except vinegar — to a quick boil, then turn down heat to low and simmer, stirring until all sugar is dissolved and berries liquefied. Let cool. Add vinegar; fine-strain and refrigerate.

trouble in tromba

2 oz Tromba Blanco
1 oz fresh lime juice
1/2 oz strawberry sage shrub
1 oz simple syrup
1 egg white

Shake well in ice-filled cocktail shaker. Fine-strain into rocks glass.


Christine Sismondo is a National Magazine Award-Winning drinks columnist and the author of Mondo Cocktail: A Shaken and Stirred History as well as America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops.

Comments are closed.

North America’s Longest Running Food & Wine Magazine

Get Quench-ed!!!

Champion storytellers & proudly independent for over 50 years. Free Weekly newsletter & full digital access