Cocktails Go Sweet And Sour

Shrubs and drinking vinegars add new dimensions to mixology.

At Washington, D.C., bar Quarter+Glory, the Bound for Buenos Aires mixes apple cider vinegar with rum, banana liqueur, spiced apple syrup and bitters to create a complex, distinctive flavor profile.
At Washington, D.C., bar Quarter+Glory, the Bound for Buenos Aires mixes apple cider vinegar with rum, banana liqueur, spiced apple syrup and bitters to create a complex, distinctive flavor profile. (Photo by Paul Wagtouicz)

Many contemporary mixology trends are rooted in historical cocktails, but the shrub—a syrup made of fruit, vinegar and sugar—might go back the farthest. “Shrubs have been made for thousands of years,” says “Bitters & Shrub Syrup Cocktails” author Warren Bobrow. “They were a way to preserve fruit in pre-refrigeration times, and vinegar was also used as a health drink for digestion.” These days, bartenders are turning to shrubs and drinking vinegars to add unique characteristics to cocktails and streamline mixology behind the bar.

“Shrubs have a distinctive, bold flavor,” says Alex Javadov, owner of Café 21 in San Diego. A native of Azerbaijan, Javadov draws on his country’s history of preserving fruit in shrubs to craft unique concoctions with locally grown produce. “Boiling fruit takes the juice out,” he explains. “But if you put the fruit in sugar and vinegar, the flavor dissolves into the liquid and then you can use it in cocktails. You just need to have the right proportions.”

Striking a balance is key. At Washington, D.C.’s Quarter+Glory, chief creative officer Kenneth McCoy uses Bragg’s Apple Cider vinegar and Pok Pok Som Tamarind drinking vinegar in cocktails. “An ounce of Bragg’s would be too much, so I use a small amount,” he says. “The Pok Pok vinegar is more like a syrup and easy to dilute.” The bar’s signature Quarter+Glory cocktail ($13) features Brugal Añejo rum, Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition blended Scotch whisky, Gran Classico Bitter aperitif, Punt e Mes vermouth, Pok Pok Som Tamarind vinegar and salt. The Bound for Buenos Aires ($13) mixes Brugal Añejo rum, Giffard Banane du Brésil banana liqueur, lemon juice, spiced apple syrup, Bragg’s Apple Cider vinegar and Angostura bitters.

Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants has several properties that offer shrub cocktails. Manager of bar education Mike Ryan explains that house-made shrub syrups simplify drink preparation without sacrificing complexity of flavor. “Shrubs are shelf-stable, so we can build in a lot of flavors and combine sweet and acid components into one ingredient,” he says. “Making the cocktail is easy. We shake 2 ounces of base spirit with 1½ ounces of shrub. It helps us get drinks to people quickly.” Kimpton’s Good Bar at Outpost restaurant in Santa Barbara, California, recently offered the Spoon Fight ($12), created by head bartender Chris Burmeister. The drink combines Por Siempre sotol, house-made bell pepper–saffron shrub, Bittermens Hellfire Habanero shrub, fresh pineapple juice and Regans’ No. 6 Orange bitters. At Panzano in Denver, bar manager Derek Lovell’s Italian Silk cocktail ($13) blends Belvedere vodka, house-made vanilla-fennel shrub, grapefruit and lemon juices, and Bar Keep Fennel bitters.

Ryan notes that shrubs’ versatility makes them ideal for all kinds of cocktails. “Once you get the sugar-vinegar-water balance down as a base, you can layer any flavors you want,” he says. Bobrow also touts shrubs’ adaptability, pointing to an English pea–mint combination that he likes to mix with Barr Hill gin. “The brightness of the green peas and crispness of the mint go perfectly with the sweet notes of the gin, which is flavored with raw honey,” he explains.

Since shrubs offer a wide range of flavor profiles, they can pair with many different spirits. At Café 21, Javadov matches citrus shrubs with clear or lighter-flavored spirits. “Rum goes well with sweet shrubs like blood orange, and vodka works well with sour shrubs, such as kumquat,” he says. Café 21 displays an array of house-made shrubs in large clear jugs.  “People ask about the shrubs, and some even like to take pictures with them,” Javadov explains.

Consumer awareness and acceptance of shrubs has grown over the last few years. “The cocktail scene has opened people up to different ideas,” says McCoy of Quarter+Glory, adding that he rarely gets questions about the vinegar cocktails on the menu. Kimpton’s Ryan agrees, noting that even properties outside of major metropolitan areas are offering shrub cocktails. “It’s still just beginning, but it’s really cool that shrubs are filtering down to the average consumer,” he says.