A shrub doesn't even sound drinkable. But Dallas cocktail makers are using this centuries-old concoction to bring zip to their drinks, and restaurants are playing up the health benefits.
First, an explanation of a shrub, also known as a drinking vinegar. A combination of vinegar, fruit, sugar and herbs, the shrub came about as a way to preserve seasonal fruits during pre-refrigeration days. The practice has roots in 17th century England and carried over into colonial America.
This fruit-infused vinegar syrup can be diluted with water, club soda or seltzer and consumed as a refreshing beverage; it can also be used as an ingredient in cocktails.
"The shrub gives a drink a bit of zip, brightness and acid without the use of citric acid," says Standard Pour co-founder Brian McCullough.
Standard Pour co-founder Brian McCullough began using shrubs as part of his appreciation for time-honored crafts. "Like anything in the cocktail world, we celebrate old techniques because that is where the processes were created and mastered," he says. But there's also the flavor.
"The shrub gives a drink a bit of zip, brightness and acid without the use of citric acid," he says.
There are, according to McCullough, two standard ways for creating the drink. The first is the cocktail shrub, in which the ingredients and a spirit are allowed to macerate for two to three weeks before straining and bottling. This creates a shrub that's ready to drink.
McCullough's preferred method is to make a shrub syrup by mashing the vinegar, fruit and sugar together and letting it sit for a couple of days before adding water and simmering it over heat for an hour. After cooling, straining and filtering the syrup, it's ready to add to cocktails.
He has a stable of year-round shrubs, including a blackberry one with apple cider vinegar, a huckleberry shrub with champagne vinegar and a cranberry version with red wine vinegar. McCullough also develops shrubs throughout the year to fit with his seasonal cocktails.
In place of sodas at Righteous Foods, Lanny Lancarte serves house-made drinking vinegars with seltzer and has added the vinegars to several cocktails.
"Using vinegars in this way can be difficult, and you have to be able to balance the fruit with the vinegar," he says. "The type of cocktail you are making has a great deal to do with the 'potency' of the shrub."
At Remedy, the newly opened soda shop on Greenville Avenue, beverage director Mate Hartai uses shrubs in both cocktails and sodas, as part of the location's 1920s stylings. For example, there is a shrub in the Kentucky bourbon highball that includes spiced apple soda, made of syrup, apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and apple cider vinegar.
However, the menu doesn't list the drinking vinegar as an ingredient, because most customers aren't yet aware of what it is. "You start saying 'vinegar,' and it can get disorienting," he says. "But the second people try it, they like that it has a snap to it."
Chef Lanny Lancarte is a big drinking vinegar enthusiast, and he has them on the menu at Righteous Foods, his new healthy restaurant and juice bar in Fort Worth. In place of sodas, he serves shrubs — house-made drinking vinegars with seltzer — and has added the vinegars to several cocktails.
He got the idea after tasting them in Portland, Oregon; they've also shown up in Austin. Lancarte saw them as a natural replacement for soft drinks.
"We definitely emphasize the health angle," he says. "Aside from the benefits of antioxidants, the drink aids in digestion and brings the meal down with some probiotics."
His target audience — parents looking for something for their kids to drink in lieu of soft drinks — has been slow to catch on to the idea of ordering a vinegar-based beverage. But he realizes it's a novel idea.
"Most people are pretty surprised by it," he says. "But the people that have tried it, love it. And there's more on the table than when we first opened."
Lancarte feels that shrubs will start picking up in North Texas as more people look to the health benefits and utility of the drink. "I think it's been trending in other [cities] for the past couple of years,” he says. "It just trickled down. We tend to be 30 minutes late on this kind of stuff."
McCullough sees them as an integral part of cocktail making and believes their rediscovery will make it past the fad stage. "The fact that it being brought back into our modern day is proof that it will have longevity much long after it becomes a fad," he says. "Fads are okay because they can set a trend, which will set in motion a standard practice.
"This practice is one that will and should stand the test of time, as it has for a couple hundred years now."