Cocktail Queries is a Paste series that examines and answers basic, common questions that drinkers may have about mixed drinks, cocktails and spirits. Check out every entry in the series to date, including 5 questions on bourbon and 5 questions on rye whiskey.
If you have any experience mixing up home cocktails at all, you know that acidity is important to many drinks. It’s the reason why various citrus juices (lime, lemon, grapefruit, orange, etc.) are an essential staple of any attempt at mixology, because acid is an integral balancing component to the richness found in aged liquors such as whiskey and rum, while also being a complementary note to brighter spirits such as gin. Suffice to say, you’re not going to get all that far in your cocktail-building career without access to citrus.
Fresh citrus juices, however, are far from the only way to modify the acidity of a drink and build a unique cocktail flavor profile. One of the most direct ways, in fact, is the use of shrubs.
What’s a shrub, you ask? Well, it’s a tincture with a long history but a low modern profile, discarded like so many historic drinks but then rediscovered by modern cocktail culture. Even cocktail fans may not be all that accustomed to using shrubs, but they’re increasingly available commercially, easy to make at home and represent an invaluable tool for infusing your drinks with new flavors.
At the most basic level, a shrub is a fruit syrup made with vinegar, giving it a strongly acidic twain that also works as a preservative. Shrubs are sweetened with sugar to offset the acidity, making them like twangy fruit cordials. They’re sometimes consumed neat, but are most often used to infuse bright fruit flavors and acidity into mixed drinks or cocktails. A shrub can simply be mixed with sparkling water to make a tangy homemade soda, or it can be used in small quantities to lift up a complex cocktail. Likewise, it can be used in many other culinary capacities, from marinating meat or as a component in a salad dressing. Shrubs are extremely versatile.
How does one make a shrub?
“Shrub” comes initially from the Arabic sharbah, meaning “a drink” (the same root word for “sherbet” and “syrup”), and it’s more or less what was traditionally called a “drinking vinegar.” That may sound gross, but these drinking vinegars had important preservative uses for food throughout history, in addition to delivering important nutrients. But more importantly for our purposes, they make a dynamite cocktail addition.
Making homemade shrubs is actually quite simple, requiring only some fruit, vinegar, sugar and stout containers (mason jars will work just fine) that can be tightly sealed. The most common process involves pouring hot vinegar (heated to kill any potential bacteria before contact with the fruit, to prevent fermentation) over fruit, which is sealed and allowed to steep for days or weeks. The resulting vinegar syrup is then strained from the fruit, heated again, sweetened with sugar and allowed to rest before it is consumed. Thanks to its acidity, shrubs will keep in the fridge for months at a time. Check out this more in-depth guide, if you want to explore making your own shrub.
As for what kinds of fruit or flavors you might choose to use, that’s entirely up to you. Berries are a classic, as it’s very easy to get bright berry flavors of raspberry, strawberry, etc., but stone fruit or tropical fruits can also be used. Likewise, shrubs don’t have to contain only fruit—they can be cocktails within themselves, supported by herbs or spices. You might choose to include stem ginger in your shrub for the ginger flavor and accompanying heat, or fresh chiles or peppercorns for spice. Any attractive-sounding combination of flavors can be used. You can likewise use any style of vinegar, and the resulting shrub will obviously take on the character of the vinegar that is used … although I can’t say I’ve ever had a balsamic vinegar shrub before, now that I think of it.
There are, of course, also those who advocate for an even more natural shrub-making technique, preferring cold steeping of the fruit and vinegar, but this leaves the resulting shrub more open to fermentation within the sealed container, which could theoretically result in a dangerous build-up of CO2, the growth of harmful bacteria, or a changed flavor profile. Unless you’re a kombucha zealot worshiping at the alter of any kind of natural fermentation, you might want to consider the heated alternative.
So the next time you’re at a cocktail bar, sipping something with an exotic twang, ask your bartender if perhaps they whipped it up with a custom shrub. You might even score their recipe in the process.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.