Sour is an essential cocktail component. That’s why, every day, bartenders across Kansas City squeeze mounds of lemons and limes.
But look closely and you’ll see another ingredient quietly adding its own tang to drinks — shrubs.
These complex and bright syrups are made from fruit, sugar and vinegar. They have enough acetic acid to perk up your taste buds, but they also deliver unique layers of flavor.
“Shrubs are one of the best ways to get the fruit flavor into a drink without using juice,” says Mark Church, a bartender at Grünauer in the Freight House District.
The word “shrub” derives from “shrab,” an Arabic word for drink, according to Wayne Curtis’ “And a Bottle of Rum” (Crown Publishers, 2006).
It makes sense, said cocktail historian David Wondrich. Citrus drinks were commonplace centuries ago, and lemon juice-based shrubs remained essential to proper punch into the 17th century. Still, “not everyone could get lemons,” says Wondrich, the author of “Punch” (Perigee, 2010). “As early as the 1690s, people were substituting vinegar for lemon juice. If you do it right, it can be very tasty.”
Shrubs were also a way to extend the harvest. Colonial Americans used fruit, sugar and vinegar to make what Curtis described as “a dense, intensely flavorful syrup that could preserve the pleasing bite of the fruit into winter and beyond.”
Colonists added rum and brandy to their shrubs, or sometimes simply diluted them with water. The nonalcoholic appeal of shrubs grew in step with the temperance movement of the 19th and 20th centuries, according to “Homemade Soda” (Storey Publishing, 2011), but then waned after Prohibition’s repeal.
So what accounts for the shrub’s revival?
Wondrich chalks it up to bartenders’ enthusiasm for hand-crafting unique and sometimes forgotten syrups, bitters and other ingredients. “Bartenders are making shrubs new their way,” Wondrich says. “They’re using history as a starting place instead of copying it.”
Arturo Vera-Felicie, bar manager at the Farmhouse in the River Market, is certainly bending shrubs to his own palate. His spring cocktail menu features a strawberry-lime shrub with rum and ginger liqueur, an apple-cinnamon one with tequila and Ophelia’s Lament, a fizzy house-bottled cocktail made with aquavit and a rhubarb-orange shrub.
All the shrubs can also be served as nonalcoholic, savory sodas. While some diners might be put off by the idea of drinking vinegar, there’s nothing to be afraid of, Vera-Felicie says. “You’re taking vinegar and infusing it with flavor and adding sugar,” he said. “It balances out the acidity.”
That balance makes shrubs food friendly, especially with spicy dishes like the tacos at Westport Street Fare, a stationary food truck in Westport. Co-owner Aaron Confessori created a shrub-based sweet-sour orange soda that he said perfectly balances their heat.
“You can have a bite of a Korean short rib taco, and then you have a drink of the shrub, and, literally, it’s gone,” says Confessori, also co-owner of Westport Café & Bar and the Boot. “You’re ready for the next bite.”
That same orange shrub plays well in cocktails, too. At Westport Café & Bar, it’s stirred with blended Scotch whisky and Cherry Heering to make the Blood & Glass, a riff on the classic Blood & Sand. Next door at the Boot, a raspberry shrub, gin and fresh grapefruit juice make an easy-to-drink highball.
Shrubs aren’t just for professional bartenders, though. They’re easy to create at home, too, said Grünauer’s Church. “Shrubs are so simple to make,” he says. “There’s no wrong way to do it.”
Bartenders each have their own approach. Some macerate fruit in sugar, strain the juice and then add vinegar to taste. Some infuse vinegar with fruit, and then strain and sweeten. Some simmer their syrups on the stove; others do it cold.
Once you decide on a method, pick a fruit. Strawberries, raspberries, blood oranges, apples, peaches, pears, plums, navel oranges, limes, cherries — almost any fruit goes. You can add rosemary, lavender or other herbs, spices like cloves or cinnamon sticks or even chilies.
Gram & Dun combines a strawberry-habanero shrub with Del Maguey Crema de Mezcal, lime juice and ginger beer in the Mezcal Mule to make a drink that perfectly balances sweet, heat and smoke. Its Hell’s Bells mixes a pineapple-rosemary shrub with rye whiskey, Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale, black tea-infused Lillet Blanc, lemon juice and orange bitters.
Sugars — including granulated, raw and brown — are all good shrub sweeteners, but you can also go liquid with molasses, agave nectar or honey. “Clover or wildflower honey adds a floral characteristic,” said Caitlin Corcoran, a barista at Parisi Artisan Coffee in Union Station who last month competed in the U.S. Barista Championship in Portland, Ore.
Corcoran’s entry was a three-course espresso tasting menu. She began with a straight-up shot of single origin Guatemalan espresso, followed with an espresso dotted with milk foam to amplify its vanilla and caramel notes and finished by adding one-half ounce of her apple-honey shrub to the final shot. The shrub brightened the coffee, bringing green apple and walnut flavors to the fore.
“A lot of customers hear coffee described as bright or acidic, and they get turned off,” says Corcoran, who hopes her shrubs will soon be added to Parisi’s menu. “I wanted to present a pleasurable acidic experience.”
Corcoran picked Champagne vinegar for her shrub, infusing it first with apples to deepen the flavor, but beet-and-brown sugar shrub (a café staff favorite) incorporates red wine vinegar and an eight-year-old Casa Rinaldi balsamic pairs with strawberries and brown sugar.
You can also try apple cider, white wine, rice, balsamic and white balsamic vinegars. Distilled white vinegar is generally considered too harsh for fruits; Church usually uses it only with spicier ingredients such as jalapeños or red bell pepper.
“Anything that has a little spice like that works fine with it,” he says.
Church’s favorites include a Buddha’s hand shrub, made from the zest of the yellow fingered citron fruit and mixed with gin, Averna and tonic water, and a blood orange version matched to Cognac, rhubarb bitters and tonic.
He and bar manager Scott Beskow have mixed pear shrubs with Cognac, Angostura bitters and sparkling water, created Tiki-style rum and coconut shrub cocktails and served a spicy mojito-style shrub with mint and jalapeños. Beskow can’t say what will be next.
“But we’ll always have a shrub on the menu,” Beskow says. “They’re just so good.”
Anne Brockhoff is an award-winning spirits columnist and regular contributor to FYI | Food. She blogs at fooddrinklife.wordpress.com.