Shrub Cocktails

Shrub.dbmProposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

Yes, “shrub” is a funny word—as is, Monty Python fans will tell you, the word “shrubbery.” Normally a shrub is a woody plant smaller than a tree with several main stems arising at or near the ground, but in cocktailian lore, the word derives from sharāb, Arabic meaning “to drink,” which also gives us “sherbet” and “syrup” as metathetic variants… of course.

A shrub combines three basic ingredients: fruit, sugar, and vinegar. It’s the vinegar that’s strange, but the history of shrubs goes back to medicinal cordials of the 15th century and early cocktails 17th and 18th century England, when the lack of refrigeration may have made vinegar an almost inevitable part of every fruit syrup. Shrubs, often called “drinking vinegars,” were thought to have health benefits and were particularly popular in the American colonies. They often included infusions of herbs and spices as well as various fruit and rinds.

To us, it may seem odd to drink vinegar, but, if people make cocktails from pickle and olive brine, how’s a shrub strange? Trust me, the combination of sweet and sour flavors will be more familiar. As I said in my proposal last week, a shrub makes a lot of sense if you don’t live in Florida or California and are looking for a locally grown alternative to citrus.

Plus, in these-here modern times, shrub has become hip, and it’s easier to make (and more appetizing) than just leaving sweetened fruit on the counter until it begins to turn. You can make it with a hot or cold method or you can add the vinegar right in the cocktail glass. Some people don’t even want alcohol. Combined with carbonated water, shrubs may have been some of America’s earliest soft drinks.

The particular fruit I chose for my shrub was rhubarb, not because it’s another funny word but because we had some topping we’d been using for angel food cake and ice cream. However, any fruit would work… even prickly pear, I bet. Then you add some spirit (I chose bourbon), and perhaps some bubbles to lighten things up (I chose ginger ale), and some bitters. I chose cardamom bitters because that’s what the recipe I used called for… and I like to show off that I have such strange bitters… and I haven’t yet found a drink that cardamom bitters didn’t overwhelm (until now).

Here are the recipes, first for shrub and then for the drink I chose.

Fruit Shrub:

2-3 parts fruit
1 part apple cider or red wine vinegar
2/3 parts brown or white sugar

Shred or macerate fruit

Add Sugar

Cold Method: combine with vinegar and refrigerate, strain out fruit before using.

Hot Method: heat fruit and sugar, cool, add vinegar and refrigerate, strain out fruit before using.

Note: the hot method matures more quickly and is ready to use once it’s cool. The cold method takes longer because the flavors need to meld over a few days.

Bourbon Shrub Cocktail:

2 ounces bourbon
1 ounce fruit shrub
3-4 dashes cardamom bitters
Ginger ale
2 apple slices

Fill a cocktail glass with ice and add in bourbon, apple shrub and bitter.

Stir gently and top with ginger ale.

Garnish with apple slices.

This formula is only a guideline, of course. Bourbon and rhubarb seem a congenial couple to me, but with so many variables to explore, a shrub could become (and has become) the basis for any number of cocktails using every sort of fruit and every sort of spirit. The English liked rum and brandy with their shrubs, so if this recipe doesn’t work for you… try another. Before I made a shrub, I never thought of drinking vinegar, but now I may add gin, or vodka, or scotch, or aquavit… boy, my liquor cabinet is full.

Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

schrub.jmThere are a number of classic commercials that I cite on a regular basis. The Popeil pocket fisherman, that portable wonder, is useful anytime one needs to compare something to an item so simple and ingenious that you wonder why you didn’t invent it yourself. Seriously, how is it still not popular? Chisanbop was a math aid that purported to turn kids into adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing aces in no time. The method was something akin to creating an abacus with your fingers and I still reference its possible use anytime some quick mind bending calculations need to be made. Of course that reference is not complete without a completely inaccurate display of Chisanbop calculations. The other regular reference is Jogging in a Jug.

Jogging in a Jug was a magic health elixir that claimed to help a person enjoy all the benefits of a running regimen without stepping a foot outside or on a treadmill. During the height of its popularity, before those pesky government health experts shut it down, I actually tried the stuff. One taste and it was obvious that a main ingredient was vinegar – apple cider vinegar as it turns out. Mixed with fruit juices to make it palatable, it enjoyed some success in sales, but now it is simply a reference to miracle cures.

This week’s drink with its odd mix of shrub and bourbon brought to mind that magic cure. The shrub is much more complicated than mixing fruit juices with vinegar but follows the same concept. The sweet apples and brown sugar create just enough distraction so that you don’t think about the fact that the liquid you are drinking is predominantly vinegar. So much so that the shrub by itself wasn’t bad at all.

The funny part is that the combination with bourbon is interesting, so different that I can’t recall another drink like it, and really good. Almost every drink we try, especially this far into the project, can be compared to something else but not this one. The shrub was distinctive and dominated the drink in a good way. I didn’t have cardamom bitters (I used Peychaud’s) and would have been interested what they added even though it is doubtful they would have changed the emphasis.

My final thought is that I have no idea what I am going to with the rest of my shrub. I guess it is there if I decide it’s time to start running again, and I really don’t want to get off the sofa.

Next week (Proposed by Jonathan):

I hope David is not a purist (actually we know that he is not) because I think we should make a non-traditional sangria. The season of fresh peaches is dwindling, and I want to try a lighter sangria made with that fruit and white wine before the peaches go. It is also a drink that can be made in large quantities, and David will be with a big group of ready tasters. There will be a basic recipe but this is a drink that can, and should, vary with what’s available.

Jonathan’s take: Is it just me or do I look lighter after that drink?

David’s Take: Quite a discovery. You think you’ve learned everything, and then…

The Monkey Incident

Proposed By: Jonathanjbm.bananas

Reviewed By: David

First there is just a murmur. Something is going on but no one is talking, not even speculating. But then there’s more. A rumor and maybe even someone who knows another person who has heard. It’s very possible that something is awry and people are being misled. You can’t talk about it though because no one is sure. Finally it starts to break the surface.

There’s been a monkey incident.

This is a drink that invented itself from a reference that became a name. Like the tag that becomes the name of the band that plays intro to the lead in for the main act. I heard a reference to a monkey incident and thought it should be a drink, or at least an answer to a variety of questions:

“Yes officer, I was speeding but I got an urgent call. There’s been a monkey incident.”

“She could have been the one, but there was no way I could tell her about the monkey incident.”

“I had a drink. They made me wear the hat. And then next thing I knew there was a monkey incident.”

“The monkey incident? Yeah, that could’ve started it, but the elephant didn’t help things.”

“Everything was good. No, it was great. All of a sudden things went bad. That stupid monkey incident.”

When I proposed this drink, I didn’t have anything except the idea that it needed to be frozen and called “The Monkey Incident.” I won’t say I was flooded with ideas, but I quickly learned that anyone who honeymooned in the islands had some type of frozen monkey drink and remembers it to this day, And by remember, I simply mean they enjoyed the drink but have no earthly idea what was in it. But it did have “monkey” in the name.

The starting point was to learn what monkeys eat. Anything they are fed is the answer, but given the choice they are omnivores and bananas, at least the type people eat, are not the first choice. Fruit, vegetables, nuts, insects and even (gasp) other monkeys can be part of their diet. There was no way I was making a drink with actual monkey, so the base had to be rum (the tropical effect) and the cliché banana. A lot of drinks start with that and add fruit (so I am not sure if this original), but here is the final recipe:

1.5 ounces rum (I went with gold but white works)
.75 ounce banana liqueur
2 ounces fresh pineapple
2 ounces coconut water
2 ounces vanilla ice cream
2 dashes orange bitters
Ice

Mix everything in a blender or smoothie maker. Blend well and garnish with tiki supplies and fresh pineapple.

Here’s David’s Review:

monkeys2As often happens, my brother anticipated my next move. Recently my daughter and I engaged in a few thought experiments regarding how a mixologist might convert various desserts into cocktails. Then Jonathan revealed the Monkey Incident.

One of our brainstorms concerned Banana Foster, a New Orleans flambé of bananas, brandy, brown sugar, and orange zest topped by ice cream.

“What we’d need,” I said to my daughter, “is banana liqueur.”

Now I know exactly what banana liqueurs are out there.

This cocktail marks a departure for this blog in a number of ways. First, and most obviously, we’re usually working from recipes and this cocktail is new—though it relies on tried-and-true combinations of flavors. Second, we’ve generally relied on fruit to impart their taste, and this time we’re relying on the surrogate banana liquor. Third, it’s frozen… and creamy… and dessert-y. We haven’t done that before.

Though I wasn’t quite sure when to serve this drink—before dinner or well after or mid-afternoon?—I really enjoyed it. At one point Jonathan’s suggested we might cut the sweetness of the drink by including almond milk as well as ice cream, and that’s what I did. The banana liquor was quite a discovery. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of banana flavoring (or any flavoring relying on chemical mimicry) but the version of banana liquor I chose—99 Bananas—not only evoked the fruit powerfully but also, at 99 proof, packed quite a punch.

The overall effect was an adult milkshake, substantial and sweet but also potent and fun, a slice of vacation perfect for the dog-days of high summer. I’m not sure the Monkey Incident actually is a Bananas Foster equivalent—perhaps the pineapple changed it, made it seem closer, in some ways to a Piña Colada—but the rum (I used Black Seal) adds the same spicy element you find in Bananas Foster amid the confection.

In fact, if I could be so bold as to offer an amendment, I’d recommend going further with spice, perhaps topping this cocktail with a dash of cinnamon or ginger to enhance its complexity.

But that may be more polished than Jonathan wanted. I enjoyed this drink as is, its childlike—but not childish—combination of tropical flavors. I began thinking about Baked Alaska

Jonathan’s take: I need to apologize to David for making him buy banana liqueur. But there was that monkey incident…

David’s Take: Hard to know when to serve it (or what to serve it with) and certainly not an everyday sort of cocktail, but a great treat.

Next Week (Proposed by David):

Talking to a Chicago mixologist committed to easily accessible, local ingredients, I heard about some interesting sour alternatives to the absolutely-NOT Chicago citrus many cocktails rely upon, and that conversation led me into the world of Shrubs, vinegared syrups that add a sweet and tart element to drinks. Next week, I’m proposing a shrub cocktail. We’ll be following the formula of a specific recipe that requires bourbon. Other than the necessity of that spirit, however, the sort of shrub Jonathan and I concoct can be anything we think might add.

Lemon Basil Cocktail

lemonade 11Proposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

Occasionally envy hits me when I visit friends with gardens. Our patio gets sun, but it’s city sun, subject to deep shadows much of the day. In years past, we’ve always been able to grow some herbs in small pots, but that’s about it… and some years even those were anemic, besieged by the windy storms that hit Chicago this time of year. Still, it’s nice during the summer to boost a recipe with fresh oregano, thyme, or rosemary.

Basil is an herb well worth cultivating. It smells wonderful, and, with very little care, issues forth leaf after deep green leaf. This year, having moved to a new place about a month ago, we’ve relied on farmers for fresh basil, but it’s the same stuff, only grown by a much greener thumb.

This week’s drink isn’t the first we’ve tried with basil. Next to mint, it may be the most popular herb to add to cocktails. But it isn’t at all like mint. In cocktails like Juleps, mint seems part of the drink’s sweetness. Basil contributes something different, a spicy edge. When it comes to cocktails, “Botanical” may not sound so good to some people, but, in this case, the basil is botanical in being fresh and immediate. Depending on how much you use, it can be the star.

When I wrote the proposal last week, I described the Lemon Basil Cocktail as “another lemonade,” but it isn’t really that. It contains lemon, but the same level of citrus and potency you’d expect from a margarita or mojito rather than the sweet (and not that tart) accompaniment for hot dogs and hamburgers.

The short version: it’s a grown-up drink.

On muddling: like many of the drinks we’ve tried, this one relies on mashing ingredients with a muddler. I have what looks like a little baseball bat for that purpose, and I used it to destroy the basil and lemon to release their flavors. For this recipe, you’re supposed to muddle in the glass, adding triple sec, tequila, ice and club soda only after you’ve used your muscle to render the rest detritus.

I confess I didn’t. Perhaps there’s a limit to how much freshness I can handle, maybe I’m too much of a neatnik, but experience tells me it’s unappetizing to get to the end of a drink and discover a bolus of pulverized pulp. I’ll offer the recipe as it was written, but I squeezed the lemon and did the muddling in a cocktail shaker that strained out all evidence of my muscle. Knowing that I was tossing the remainder, I also used more basil than listed.

Here’s the recipe:

2 parts Silver Tequila
1 part premium triple sec
1/2 lemon
3 basil leaves
1/2 part simple syrup
Club soda

Muddle lemon, basil and simple syrup in a chilled glass. Add ice, triple sec and Silver Tequila. Top with club soda. Garnish with a lemon wheel.

And Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

drinkjbmThis drink follows one of the main themes I have espoused for cocktails. There are simply horses for courses. The literal meaning is that certain racehorses perform better on tracks that match their skills. In the figurative sense the expression is used throughout sports to describe performers who excel since the field, track, course or whatever corresponds well to their strengths.

Whew, that’s a long way to say this cocktail is made for the hot, humid weather in which we are mired.

Last week I watched the beginning of a Chicago Cubs game and some of the spectators were wearing jackets or pullovers. Seriously – long sleeves in July? It is a wonder that people are not heading out to work in shorts and t-shirts here in North Carolina. There have been more days that have reached 100 degrees than any summer since I moved here, and the ones that don’t get that hot come close. For some reason, it refuses to rain but the air hangs heavy like it should. We need long sleeve weather.

The cocktail is a variation on the mojito with basil and lemon tones that acts like a cool breeze. Given the same drink in the fall or winter and I am sure I would find it way too subtle and diluted. In the throes on this summer though, it is the ice bucket challenge, a trip to the mountains, toes in the creek or that special morning in June (the one) when the temperature finally dips to the mid 60’s that we miss so much. The highlight is the basil, which we have used a few times, and it marries with the tequila in a way that mint doesn’t. Instead of accentuating the spirit by adding similar flavors, it contrasts in a savory way that makes the tequila more distinctive and better.

There are two final notes. One of these was plenty. I could have had more, if only for the cooling effect, but something about the mix made it seem more potent than the recipe implies, so one was enough. The second thing is that I would recommend a slight adjustment to the recipe. Unless you are using really large lemons, substitute half of the club soda for sparkling lemonade (there was some left from last week). It boosts the lemon without losing any of the effervescence.

Jonathan’s take: I should have had one to drink and then poured one on my head. That would show this summer.

David’s take: Redolent of summer. How that for vocab?

Next week (Proposed By Jonathan):

Maybe I’m still searching for that cooling effect, but it is time for a frozen drink. We haven’t tried one yet and it seemed like the perfect time to do so. There is one slight problem. I have a name for the drink, The Monkey Incident, but I don’t know what is in it yet. I promise to let David know sometime this week. Just as soon as it comes to me.

Blackberry-Bourbon Lemonade

RedjbmProposed By: Jonathan

Reviewed By: David

We grew up in a small town near Galveston Bay. At least that is what I usually say even though it may be more accurate that we spent our formative years there. We lived there pre-school, elementary, middle and, for David, the first two years of high school. It was a great place to be a kid, at least in my estimation, because the town was small (we moved across town and the two houses were barely over a mile apart). You could leave the house in the morning and show up again at dinner without anyone wondering where you had been.

It was also an area that allowed for food gathering. The bay and bayous were within walking and biking distance, which meant crabbing and fishing for most of the year. There were also plentiful figs and berries. Mulberries grew on trees and were okay but not worth stealing from the birds, but the blackberries that grew in open areas were definitely worth the occasional interaction with an indigo or hognose snake (I think they were there to eat things that eat blackberries). Straight snacking or filling a pouch by turning up the bottom of my shirt, I grew up with an affinity for blackberries.

My wife was the one who suggested this week’s drink. The lemonade and bourbon were interesting, but it was the picture of blackberries floating in the drink that sold me. And all of that was before I realized there was a blackberry/rosemary syrup. That syrup is medium on the difficulty scale, although the smell alone is worth it. The name may be too complicated for Yankee Candle, but some candle entrepreneur should figure how to replicate the sweet and savory odor of the simmering stems of rosemary with a mound of blackberries. It tastes wonderful too:

12 ounces blackberries by weight (a couple of cups by volume)
1.5 tbs of rosemary (three to four short stems)
¾ cup water
¼ cup sugar

Mix water and sugar in a saucepan to combine, add rosemary and blackberries, bring to a boil and then simmer for 20 minutes. Spend the last 5 minutes smashing the blackberries and then strain – through a colander first and a fine mesh screen second.

The drink is easy on the mixing scale:

2 ounces bourbon
¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
2 tsps blackberry/rosemary syrup
1/3 cup sparkling lemonade

Mix the bourbon, lemon juice and syrup in a shaker with ice. Strain into a highball or double old-fashioned glass, add the sparkling lemonade and ice then garnish with fresh blackberries.

Better Homes and Gardens also provides the proportions to make it by the pitcher full. My recommendation is to invite folks over and do exactly that.

Here’s David’s Review:

Red.dbmNo sense in being coy. I loved this week’s cocktail. I would go as far to say it was one of the best we’ve tried… which leaves me very little else to say except to explain why.

I’ll start, however, with the one reason I didn’t love this cocktail. I have a love-hate relationship with syrups, and the central element of this cocktail meant pulling out the cheesecloth again. Syrups (especially this one) are worth the trouble, and it’s not like it’s impossible to boil fruit with sugar. The sticky point arrives when it’s time to eliminate parts of that mixture you don’t want. Perhaps my impatience dooms me, but I end up staring down the fine mesh screen as it clogs and slows to an agonizing drip. Forcing the liquid out with a spoon leaves too much behind, so I end up squeezing the stuff through cheesecloth.

All this kvetching leads to a prayer: someone somewhere out there (please!) must know how to separate pulp and syrup without so much trouble or mess. I’d love to learn your secret.

In the meantime, I’m sure my hands won’t be stained red for that long.

What I do love are blackberries. Like Jonathan, I especially appreciate the nostalgia they evoke. I vaguely remember picking them at some farm in coffee cans, but I can still taste the variably sweet and sour variety that sprouted wild in the Texas town where Jonathan and I grew up. My own recollection is that few summer days passed without pausing to grab a couple from the brambles, snakes be damned. Sometimes we even gathered enough in our T-shirts to convince our mom to make cobbler. Of course, we never thought of combining them with rosemary, but the influence of the herb is subtle and perfect.

Which is another thing I loved about this cocktail—each ingredient seemed assertive without being overwhelming on its own. Though you taste the bourbon, it doesn’t take center stage. The syrup is clearly blackberry, but the lemon in the drink keeps it from coming across as too sweet or heavy. I used Izze Limon as my sparkling lemonade because I couldn’t find anything else, but that choice seemed serendipitous. The touch of lime and the understated sweetness of the soft drink made the final concoction light and refreshing, perfect for a July 4th afternoon.

When Jonathan sends his portion of our post, I nearly always find we’ve touched on similar ideas. Even before he sent his part, I’d written the same advice: leap directly to making a pitcher of this stuff. Creating the syrup is the only downside, so make a lot—red hands be damned—and look for friends to share the plenty of summer blackberries.

David’s Take: One of my favorites.

Jonathan’s take: The blackberries drew me in, the syrup and bourbon increased my interest and the drink clinched it. I’d fight a hognose for it.

Next Week (Proposed By David):

Summer—even in Chicago—brings verdant growth… and farmers’ markets. It’s fun this time of year to recognize the peaks of various plants, as rhubarb gives way to peaches and asparagus to tomatoes. This week’s recipe is a Lemon Basil Cocktail, another lemonade involving an herb, this time made with tequila, triple sec, lemon, and the tender basil that is just beginning to appear for sale in Chicago. At first I thought about mixing things up more—we are on a streak of fruit drinks—but why not take advantage of summer’s bounty?