Vinegar is probably the last thing you’d think to reach for when you want to make a refreshing drink. But with a little sugar, a handful of past-its-prime fruit, and about a week in the fridge, vinegar can transform into one of the most complex, mixologist-approved flavors to ever grace your cocktails.
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I consider myself to be a fairly adventurous drinker, but even I admit, I was fully skeptical of putting such a stinky, sour condiment in my cocktail. I don’t really care for vinegar much at all—I am a committed ranch dressing eater—so the idea of allowing a cleaning product to mingle with my gin sounded like sacrilege.
But shrubs, or drinking vinegars, have been an important element in cocktail-making (or just basic-beverage-making) for years. Since vinegar inhibits the growth of bacteria, shrubs were originally conceived as a way to preserve aging produce. They were very popular in Colonial America and were consumed as far back as Ancient Rome. But there’s another reason they pair well with liquor: Shrubs manage to convey the bright flavors of fruits without adding too much sweetness. This is what also makes them perfect for summer drinking.
You don’t need much to make shrubs, and you’re likely to always have all three ingredients on-hand. Vinegar can indeed be the distilled white gallon bottle you have in your laundry room, or it can be a fancy balsamic one from Italy. Sugar, the plain white kind, will do. And then, of course, fruit, which can totally be a little bruised and mushy. Because shrubs last a few weeks in the fridge, they are a great thing to make if you have a ton of fruit that you don’t know what to do with. The best possible shrub inspiration can be found in the fruit salad you didn’t quite finish at last Sunday’s BBQ.
The idea is to macerate the fruit with a bunch of sugar to create a syrup, which you then add to vinegar. But the key is letting it chill in the fridge for a few days—maybe a week or more. Someone asked me once if shrubs are like kombucha, and although it’s not fermented, it does have the same kind of sour, sparkly sensation on your tongue. But a shrub is not as intense, and it goes way better with booze.
Once you’ve got the methodology down, experimenting is fun. You can use different vinegars, throw in various herbs, and even toss in some bitters. I simply used what I had around the house for these recipes. A dinged-up peach, some mint, and apple cider vinegar turned into a sweet-and-sour bourbon smash. And with some very old strawberries and a handful of basil, I made a gin balsamic drink that was a tangy, perfect take on adult soda. It almost—almost—made me like vinegar.
- A peach or two, very ripe
- Apple cider vinegar
- Bourbon (I used Bulleit)
Cut the peach in chunks and toss them with sugar in a bowl until they’re well-coated. Put it in the fridge overnight until the sugar has dissolved.
Strain the syrup out, squeezing out the solids, and mix with an equal part vinegar. Toss in a handful of mint leaves, put it in a jar in the fridge and shake it once or twice a day. You can drink the shrub right away, but it will get better after a few days.
In a cocktail shaker, mix equal parts bourbon and peach shrub and shake it good. Pour into a tumbler over a large ice cube and garnish with a sprig of mint.
- A bunch of strawberries, very ripe
- Balsamic vinegar
- Gin (I used Hendricks)
- Sparkling water or club soda (I used LaCroix)
Cut the strawberries into chunks and toss them with sugar in a bowl until they’re well-coated. Put it in the fridge overnight until the sugar has dissolved.
Strain the syrup out, squeezing out the solids, and mix with an equal part balsamic vinegar. Put it in a jar in the fridge and shake it once or twice a day.
For this one I wanted a brighter basil flavor, so I made a basil simple syrup, combining one cup of water with one cup of sugar that I added a ton of basil to and let sit until it dissolved.
In a tall glass, add equal parts gin and strawberry balsamic shrub and about half the amount of the basil syrup. Top with sparkling water for a little fizz and add a festive straw.
Here’s me in my backyard making the shrub and cocktails!