Full of WHAT and vinegar?

3 Richmond bartenders on using shrubs in cocktails

Shrubs in cocktails
Photo by Nasim Saifullah

Originally published in Richmond Magazine.

Once upon a time before refrigeration and year-round fruit for sale, people used vinegar to preserve seasonal surplus. Even when the fruit itself was gone, its flavor lingered in the vinegar—which lo and behold turned out delicious. Add some sugar to balance a sturdy measure of brandy—and the cocktail shrub is born.

Essentially shrub is a vinegar-based syrup that adds body and depth of flavor to cocktails. But it’s more versatile than just drinks. Nasim Saifullah (bar manager, Poor Boys) sets some aside to whip with EVOO as a vinaigrette—or reduce to a gastrique for accenting dishes. He’s long been a fan of shrubs, especially since learning the term might be derived from the Arabic word yashrab meaning drink.

For basic beverage shrubbery: mix equal parts spirit and shrub over ice, topped with soda. Or prosecco. Or split the spirit with a relevant liqueur. Or...wherever creativity takes you.

How to make a cocktail shrub

It starts with the fruit—the juicier the better. Sugar draws out the juice and dissolves. Vinegar adds a savory acidic balance—usually white wine or champagne vinegar (though Adan Velis of The Jungle Room prefers to play with cider, sherry, and balsamic vinegars). Then it’s a matter of what goes well together. Think apples and cinnamon. Strawberry rhubarb. Peach and vanilla. Pear and clove. Mango habanero. Fig and balsamic.

Got extra fruit? Get shrubbin. The shelf-stable nature of shrubs makes them a perfect cocktail ingredient for this weird cultural moment we’re sharing. And they’re so refreshing as the weather warms up.

By weight, combine equal parts chopped fruit and sugar. Macerate at least 24 hours to draw out the juices. Add a 1-to-1 ratio of vinegar, usually white wine or champagne vinegar, though cider, sherry and balsamic vinegars can add powerful notes. Infuse for three to seven days, then strain the fruit from the liquid. Pour equal parts spirit and shrub over ice, then top with soda, prosecco or an even split between your spirit and a complementary liqueur. Balance a concoction that is too sour with more sugar, too sweet with more vinegar. Store for three to six months in the refrigerator. 

Shrub cocktails in Richmond

Rising to the covid challenge, Beth Dixon (bar manager, Perch) has been busily preserving the restaurant’s perishables, juicing and freezing citrus, macerating the peels for oleo saccharum, and processing pineapples into pineapple-rosemary-ginger shrub to appear on their next menu—once it’s safe to congregate again.

In the meantime she’s assembling DIY cocktail kits—just add spirits. (You stocked up right?)

If not, don’t worry—you can still try switchel. An invigorating colonial-era softdrink made with cider vinegar, water, honey, and ginger—at its essence, switchel is a shrub-based mocktail. Just add soda. Or soda and iced tea. Or tonic. Or...well have fun.

DIY cocktail shrub recipes you can make at home

Celery-lavender shrub Beth Dixon

3 cups apple cider vinegar 

2 cups sugar 

2 cups chopped celery 

1/4 cup lavender flowers 

Bring vinegar, sugar and celery to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat, add lavender and let steep at least 24 hours. 

Rhubarb-fennel shrub Beth Dixon 

4-5 stalks rhubarb 

3 cups sugar 

3 cups water 

2 tablespoons fennel  

Bring ingredients to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes. Let steep for an hour then strain.  

Thai Strawberry-watermelon shrub – Adan Velis

Add equal weights diced strawberry, watermelon and sugar — an optional addition is one to three whole Thai chiles — and macerate 24 hours. Strain through cheesecloth. Add a 1-to-1 ratio of apple cider vinegar. Let sit three to five days. Add basil leaves on the last day.  

WSB's Knees cocktail

1 1/2 ounces Barr Hill gin   

1 ounce Thai strawberry watermelon shrub   

1/2 ounce honey syrup   

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled coupe.   

Strawberry-cardamom shrub – Nasim Saifullah

Combine by weight equal parts sliced strawberries and sugar. Add a little water to keep it liquid. Add five to seven cardamom pods and simmer. Strain through cheesecloth to remove seeds. Add a 1-to-1 ratio of apple cider vinegar for tart and sharp flavors or add a 1-to-1 ratio of red wine vinegar for robust and wintry flavors. Let rest three to five days.   

Strawberry Fields Forever cocktail

1.5 oz Hayman’s Old Tom gin   

.75 oz strawberry-cardamom shrub   

.25 oz lemon juice   

.25 oz turbinado syrup   

Short shake with ice and pour into a Collins glass. Top with soda.

Garnish with a dehydrated strawberry.