Proposed 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).
2-3 parts fruit
1 part apple cider or red wine vinegar
2/3 parts brown or white sugar
Shred or macerate fruit
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
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:
There 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…