What are Drinking Vinegars (a.k.a. Shrubs)?
Bartenders love the fruity vinegars for their long shelf life and convenience, and we sip on drinking vinegars for their refreshingly tart flavors. Also known as shrub, the infused vinegar works similar to a citrus in beverages, adding a bright, fresh flavor to balance the bitter and/or sweet components of whatever your bartender shakes up.
There are two types of readily available drinking vinegars on the market. Typically, anything actually branded as drinking vinegar will be a bottled, ready-to-enjoy beverage, because the vinegar base has already been diluted with ingredients like water and fruit juice. The second, more commonly called shrub, is a concentrated fruit-infused vinegar syrup that needs to be mixed with other ingredients to make your beverage. Shrub can be made by either cooking fresh fruit with sugar and vinegar or by a non-heated method that simply involves combining mashed fruit, sugar, and vinegar and letting it steep in the refrigerator. In both cases, the fruit is then strained out to yield a sugary and tangy syrup. The flavors are generally a sweet-tart balance of fruitiness, and are perfect for mixing with liquor.
Like other traditional means of preserving food, shrub initially served as a pre-colonial strategy to enjoy fresh fruit in the winter months. When fruit was at its peak, colonials would let fruit ferment in a pot with sugar and vinegar. Some records show that seawater would spoil alcohol smuggled from mainland Europe in the 1700s, and shrubs were used to mask the flavor of the spoiled liquor. Other writings mention the use of fruit macerated with sugar and boiled with vinegar, and then mixed with water to be enjoyed as a non-alcoholic beverage.
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Most modern day shrub makers provide consumers with their foolproof recipes for crafting a perfect shrub cocktail, like this recipe for one part shrub syrup, two parts spirit, 3 parts soda water, and ice. Beyond cocktails, shrub can be mixed with soda water alone for a fruity refreshing drink, or even used in salad dressings or as a syrupy topping for ice cream, yogurt, and pancakes.
The word shrub originally comes from the Arabic word sharab, which is used in the root of the Arabic words for drink and syrup. The name has similarities to sharbat, the Hindi word for an aromatic syrup made from fruit or herbs and flower extracts and stirred into water. Some have claimed potential health benefits from the sweet stuff, like lowering blood sugar, easing digestion, and decreasing cholesterol, but there isn’t definitive proof backing these health claims as of yet.
If you want to give shrub a try, we recommend going DIY (it’s super simple to make), ordering a bottle online, or checking your specialty liquor store for a bottle. Be sure to check the ingredients before you purchase a prepared shrub to make sure it’s the right one for your needs. Every recipe is a little bit different, so be aware of crazy amounts of added sugar, and double check to see if the drinking vinegar can be enjoyed solo or needs to be diluted with something else to make sure you’re purchasing the right product for your intended use.
If you're ready to start making your own shrubs and mixing up drinks, here are a few of our favorite recipes:
There are a number of retailers that have a variety of shrubs available for online purchase. McClary Bros offers fun flavors like fig, apple pie, and lemon with ginger. Shrub & Co makes a spicy ginger and blood grapefruit variety that sounds like a clear match for your next bottle of vodka. And if you want to embrace seasonal flavor, Shrub District’s summer special is a blueberry basil and The Twisted Shrub crafts a blueberry lemon that has summer sipping written all over it.