Our Not-So-Secret Ingredient: The Shrub
One of our not-so-secret ingredients here at Root and Flower is the humble shrub. In essence, a shrub is a drinking vinegar: a simple combination of fruit, sugar, and vinegar. Simple as they might seem, however, shrubs add a bright complexity to cocktails. This complexity of flavor, while keeping the cocktail itself simple, is why we love them so much.
Shrubs have seen a resurgence in the cocktail scene in the last decade because they’re so easy to use. But originally, Shrubs were used as a way of preserving fresh fruit in the time before refrigeration, freezers, and a global supply chain of year-round produce.
You would then add water, or in our case soda water, to the syrup base and have yourself a bracing and delicious fruit drink any time of the year. To make it even better, you could, and most would sneak in a little alcohol to lift your spirits.
How we make our shrubs
Shrubs are super easy to make. Mix up your preferred fruit, sugar, and vinegar and let sit for a few days for all the flavors to fully integrate. We use a ratio of 2 parts fruit, to one part sugar to one part vinegar as we like the rich fruit taste, but you could easily use equal parts of each.
Mixing the ingredients
To make the shrub, we usually stick with the “cold method”: We allow the fruit to macerate in the sugar for a few days. Just like making an Oleo Saccharum, the sugar extracts out all the juice and creates a rich syrup. You then combine this with an appropriate amount of vinegar, and voila! Delicious shrub. With herbs, and “drier” ingredients, we will let them infuse directly in the vinegar.
If you want to skip a step, you can blend the fruit, sugar, and vinegar together and let that sit for a few days. Your shrub will still be enjoyable: you lose a little control over the finer points of flavor.
The “hot method” Is equally feasible, and just as easy. Simmer all your ingredients in water to extract all their flavor, add your sugar to dissolve, then add your vinegar. This method is quicker as you have a finished shrub in hours rather than days. However, some say you lose some of the “freshness” of your produce.
For sugar, we usually use white cane sugar. This allows the fruit flavors to really shine. However, we have also used honey, which gives the shrub a rich funkiness. Our turmeric shrub uses both honey and cane sugar! But you can experiment with any sugar you want. Demerara would give subtle caramel richness. And brown sugar would be perfect for fall flavors, like baking spices and molasses!
You can also use a wide variety of vinegar. But not all kinds of vinegar are created equal. The vinegar we use depends on the fruit. Whichever vinegar you decide to use, ensure it is of high-quality. We will often taste through different kinds of vinegar to find the perfect match. Even among the same style, there will be a myriad of flavors. We pick out the best quality vinegar and ensure it lines up with the fruit or botanical of choice.
Apple Cider vinegar is our favorite because it adds an extra layer of flavor and complexity. It’s also super healthy, and many people drink it by itself to detox. Having the apple cider in our cocktails makes us feel better when we are putting back a few too many drinks on a weekend.
We use white wine vinegar when we want the herbs and fruit to stand out. Herbs and soft fruit are best used with this. We also pair red wine vinegar with red fruits and berries. We like to think of what key flavors come from red and white wines, and pair respectively.
We have even used balsamic vinegar. Joe used balsamic vinegar to create a coffee shrub for A cocktail competition. The balsamic provided a rich tanginess that paired amazingly with the rich coffee flavor!
I would not recommend using distilled white vinegar. It’s harsh, and difficult to balance. Save that for cleaning the kitchen afterward.
Our very own Mat “One-T” makes his own pineapple shrub. He combines plenty of fresh-cut pineapple with white sugar and apple cider vinegar and adds just a touch of vanilla, cinnamon, and allspice. This tiki-inspired shrub is mixed with tequila and mezcal, along with a splash of Contratto Bitter, to create our infamous Smoking Bird.
One T’s real masterpiece is his Turmeric Shrub. For this, he combines freshly cut raw turmeric, grated ginger, lemon juice, and honey to create the best winter cold remedy. In the fall we will shake this up with Scotch whisky to create our riff on the Penicillin cocktail, a Milk and Honey classic. In the winter, we turn this into a hot toddy. With all the wonderful health properties of honey, citrus, turmeric, and ginger, it is sure to chase away any winter maladies and warm your soul.
Cass Barham, esteemed bartender at our sister restaurant, Two Arrows, is very proud of her Watermelon and basil shrub. This wonderful concoction is the result of almost 3 years of experimenting to find the perfect balance. Watermelon is a hard flavor to work with and preserve, but she has done it. In the summer, she uses this to mix up her very refreshing Watermelon Spritz: Shrub, gin, Chareau aloe liqueur, prosecco, and soda
And for this upcoming winter menu, Joe is currently dialing in pepper shrub, blending bell peppers with serranos and poblanos for a spicy and earthy shrub. We then plan to shake this up with a Swedish style Aquavit, Chile vodka, and our new favorite Aloe liqueur Chareau for a super interesting spicy and refreshing vodka cocktail.
If you would like to try a shrub, but don’t have time, come see us! We will show you our shrubs of the moment, and we know you will love them. If you are looking for something for the house, you can also try our friends at Lost Identity’s Ginger Lime shrub. It makes the best Moscow mules.
What Shrubs have you made recently? Have you made any fantastic cocktails out of them yet? And Is there anything you want to see us try? Let us know in the comments below.