Sour is an essential cocktail component. Thats why, every day, bartenders across Kansas City squeeze mounds of lemons and limes.
But look closely and youll see another ingredient quietly adding its own tang to drinks shrubs.
These complex and bright syrups are made from fruit, sugar and vinegar. They have enough acetic acid to perk up your taste buds, but they also deliver unique layers of flavor.
Shrubs are one of the best ways to get the fruit flavor into a drink without using juice, says Mark Church, a bartender at Grünauer in the Freight House District.
The word shrub derives from shrab, an Arabic word for drink, according to Wayne Curtis And a Bottle of Rum (Crown Publishers, 2006).
It makes sense, said cocktail historian David Wondrich. Citrus drinks were commonplace centuries ago, and lemon juice-based shrubs remained essential to proper punch into the 17th century. Still, not everyone could get lemons, says Wondrich, the author of Punch (Perigee, 2010). As early as the 1690s, people were substituting vinegar for lemon juice. If you do it right, it can be very tasty.
Shrubs were also a way to extend the harvest. Colonial Americans used fruit, sugar and vinegar to make what Curtis described as a dense, intensely flavorful syrup that could preserve the pleasing bite of the fruit into winter and beyond.
Colonists added rum and brandy to their shrubs, or sometimes simply diluted them with water. The nonalcoholic appeal of shrubs grew in step with the temperance movement of the 19th and 20th centuries, according to Homemade Soda (Storey Publishing, 2011), but then waned after Prohibitions repeal.
So what accounts for the shrubs revival?
Wondrich chalks it up to bartenders enthusiasm for hand-crafting unique and sometimes forgotten syrups, bitters and other ingredients. Bartenders are making shrubs new their way, Wondrich says. Theyre using history as a starting place instead of copying it.
Arturo Vera-Felicie, bar manager at the Farmhouse in the River Market, is certainly bending shrubs to his own palate. His spring cocktail menu features a strawberry-lime shrub with rum and ginger liqueur, an apple-cinnamon one with tequila and Ophelias Lament, a fizzy house-bottled cocktail made with aquavit and a rhubarb-orange shrub.
All the shrubs can also be served as nonalcoholic, savory sodas. While some diners might be put off by the idea of drinking vinegar, theres nothing to be afraid of, Vera-Felicie says. Youre taking vinegar and infusing it with flavor and adding sugar, he said. It balances out the acidity.
That balance makes shrubs food friendly, especially with spicy dishes like the tacos at Westport Street Fare, a stationary food truck in Westport. Co-owner Aaron Confessori created a shrub-based sweet-sour orange soda that he said perfectly balances their heat.
You can have a bite of a Korean short rib taco, and then you have a drink of the shrub, and, literally, its gone, says Confessori, also co-owner of Westport Café & Bar and the Boot. Youre ready for the next bite.
That same orange shrub plays well in cocktails, too. At Westport Café & Bar, its stirred with blended Scotch whisky and Cherry Heering to make the Blood & Glass, a riff on the classic Blood & Sand. Next door at the Boot, a raspberry shrub, gin and fresh grapefruit juice make an easy-to-drink highball.
Shrubs arent just for professional bartenders, though. Theyre easy to create at home, too, said Grünauers Church. Shrubs are so simple to make, he says. Theres no wrong way to do it.
Bartenders each have their own approach. Some macerate fruit in sugar, strain the juice and then add vinegar to taste. Some infuse vinegar with fruit, and then strain and sweeten. Some simmer their syrups on the stove; others do it cold.
Once you decide on a method, pick a fruit. Strawberries, raspberries, blood oranges, apples, peaches, pears, plums, navel oranges, limes, cherries almost any fruit goes. You can add rosemary, lavender or other herbs, spices like cloves or cinnamon sticks or even chilies.
Gram & Dun combines a strawberry-habanero shrub with Del Maguey Crema de Mezcal, lime juice and ginger beer in the Mezcal Mule to make a drink that perfectly balances sweet, heat and smoke. Its Hells Bells mixes a pineapple-rosemary shrub with rye whiskey, Bells Two-Hearted Ale, black tea-infused Lillet Blanc, lemon juice and orange bitters.
Sugars including granulated, raw and brown are all good shrub sweeteners, but you can also go liquid with molasses, agave nectar or honey. Clover or wildflower honey adds a floral characteristic, said Caitlin Corcoran, a barista at Parisi Artisan Coffee in Union Station who last month competed in the U.S. Barista Championship in Portland, Ore.
Corcorans entry was a three-course espresso tasting menu. She began with a straight-up shot of single origin Guatemalan espresso, followed with an espresso dotted with milk foam to amplify its vanilla and caramel notes and finished by adding one-half ounce of her apple-honey shrub to the final shot. The shrub brightened the coffee, bringing green apple and walnut flavors to the fore.
A lot of customers hear coffee described as bright or acidic, and they get turned off, says Corcoran, who hopes her shrubs will soon be added to Parisis menu. I wanted to present a pleasurable acidic experience.
Corcoran picked Champagne vinegar for her shrub, infusing it first with apples to deepen the flavor, but beet-and-brown sugar shrub (a café staff favorite) incorporates red wine vinegar and an eight-year-old Casa Rinaldi balsamic pairs with strawberries and brown sugar.
You can also try apple cider, white wine, rice, balsamic and white balsamic vinegars. Distilled white vinegar is generally considered too harsh for fruits; Church usually uses it only with spicier ingredients such as jalapeños or red bell pepper.
Anything that has a little spice like that works fine with it, he says.
Churchs favorites include a Buddhas hand shrub, made from the zest of the yellow fingered citron fruit and mixed with gin, Averna and tonic water, and a blood orange version matched to Cognac, rhubarb bitters and tonic.
He and bar manager Scott Beskow have mixed pear shrubs with Cognac, Angostura bitters and sparkling water, created Tiki-style rum and coconut shrub cocktails and served a spicy mojito-style shrub with mint and jalapeños. Beskow cant say what will be next.
But well always have a shrub on the menu, Beskow says. Theyre just so good.
Shrub making is a free-form process, one thats more about personal preference than strictly adhering to recipes. Most bartenders recommend starting with equal parts fruit, sugar and vinegar, and then adjusting quantities to taste.
Shrubs are best when you begin with fresh, flavor-packed fruit. Pick your favorite and rinse it well. Then remove any pits or seeds and cut fruit into chunks. Strawberries can be sliced; other berries can be mashed with a potato masher. Dont worry about peeling anything. Oranges, limes or other citrus can be either sliced or cut into chunks without peeling, depending on your method.
Next, decide which sweetener to use. Granulated sugar makes a good standby, and superfine granulated sugar will dissolve even faster. But you can also try brown, raw, Turbinado or other sugars, or even molasses, agave nectar or honey.
Then choose your vinegar. Again, there are plenty of options, including apple cider, white wine, Champagne, red wine, rice, balsamic, white balsamic vinegars.
It seems every bartender uses a slightly different shrub-making method. Theyre all simple and tasty; here are a few to try:
• Stovetop method: Add equal parts sugar and water to a saucepan and heat gently, stirring until sugar dissolves. Add fruit and steep until all the juice has come out of the fruit and the syrup is well-flavored. Let cool, and then strain. Add vinegar, mix well and decant into a clean container. Cover and refrigerate.
• Cold process: Mix fruit and sugar in a clean container. Cover and allow to macerate at room temperature for several hours, or refrigerate for two or three days, until the fruit is surrounded by lots of juice. Strain the solids, pressing to extract as much juice as possible. Alternatively, fruits like apples or peaches can be pureed and then strained. Add vinegar, stir well, pour into a clean container and refrigerate.
• Vinegar infusion: Place fruit in a clean jar. Add enough vinegar to cover the fruit. Cover and refrigerate for about four days, occasionally shaking the jar. Strain the solids, pressing on them to remove as much juice as possible. Measure the vinegar and juice mixture, and then place in a saucepan. Add an equal quantity sugar. Heat gently, stirring occasionally until sugar dissolves. Cool, bottle and refrigerate.
• Dont want to make your own? Story in Prairie Village serves a pomegranate spritzer made with Pearl plum vodka, Pok Pok Soms pomegranate drinking vinegar (a fruity syrup slightly more sour than a shrub) and soda water. Pok Poks bottled, concentrated drinking vinegars are sold online (shop.pokpoksom.com), or you can buy bottled shrubs from Tate Farm Foods (shop.taitfarmfoods.com).
Or, visit the Tasteful Olive (thetastefulolive.com) in downtown Overland Park. The specialty store sells more than two-dozen infused balsamic vinegars, from tangerine and raspberry to chocolate, fig and lavender that are delicious when diluted with sparkling water, either with or without spirits.
For a nonalcoholic savory refresher, combine 1 ounce shrub with about 8 ounces of fizzy water or unsweetened iced tea.
Equal parts fresh strawberries, granulated sugar and white wine vinegar
Fresh habañero chilies, to taste
Hull and halve strawberries, and then mix in sugar. Allow to sit at room temperature for about four hours, or until strawberries have become quite juicy. Add as much seeded, chopped habañero chili as you like and the white wine vinegar. Cover tightly and refrigerate for about four days. Strain well and pour liquid into a clean jar. Cover and refrigerate.
Shrubs make for an easy highball just combine 1 ounce shrub with 1 1/2 ounces to 2 ounces spirits in a glass. Add ice and top with tonic or soda water. Or, try this cocktail from Gram & Dun:
Makes 1 drink
1 1/2 ounces Del Maguey Crema de Mezcal
1/2 ounce Strawberry-Habañero Shrub (recipe above)
1/2 ounce lime juice
Goslings Ginger Beer
Lime wedge, for garnish
Fill an Old Fashioned glass partway with crushed ice. Add mescal, shrub and lime juice. Top with ginger beer and garnish with lime wedge.
Per drink: 142 calories (none from fat), trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 12 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 8 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Caitlins Apple-Brown Sugar Shrub
Caitlin Corcoran loves combining shrubs with coffee. Try adding one part of her apple-brown subar shrub to three parts iced coffee. Its also tasty with bourbon, Corcoran says.
Makes about 1 1/2 cups
8 ounces (about 1 cup) diced apples, preferably Pink Lady, Honey Crisp or Granny Smith
8 ounces (about 1 cup) brown sugar
4 ounces (about 1/2 cup) pasteurized apple cider vinegar
Combine apples and brown sugar in a sterilized glass jar. Shake well and allow to rest in the refrigerator for about one week, stirring after the third or fourth day. Puree apples and strain well. Combine apple juice with apple cider vinegar and adjust sugar and vinegar to taste.
Per 2-tablespoon serving: 53 calories (1 percent from fat), trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 14 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 5 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
White wine vinegar
Fill large jar to rim with orange slices. Muddle well to release the juices and oils. Fill jar completely with white wine vinegar. Refrigerate for 3-4 days. Strain out the orange flesh. For every 1 cup of orange vinegar, add 3/4 cup of granulated sugar. Mix over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Do not boil! Remove, cool, and bottle.
Westport Cafe & Bars Blood and Glass
Makes 1 drink
1 1/2 ounce Famous Grouse Scotch whisky
1/2 ounce Dolin Rouge sweet vermouth
1/2 ounce Cherry Heering cherry brandy
1/2 ounce Orange Shrub (recipe at left)
Orange twist, for garnish
Add all ingredients except orange twist to mixing glass. Fill with ice and stir until well-chilled. Strain into a coupe glass and garnish with orange twist.
Per drink: 168 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 5 grams carbohydrates, no protein, 5 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.
Anne Brockhoff is an award-winning spirits columnist and regular contributor to FYI | Food. She blogs at fooddrinklife.wordpress.com.