Throw your bruised berries into a vinegar bath, then reap the rewards
Tangy, sweet, and explosively juicy, shrubs are a delicious shortcut to making summery cocktails at home. Drinkable vinegars flavored with fruit and sugar, they welcome experimentation: Toss in your bruised berries, your overripe peaches yearning to be used. In a few days, you’ll be rewarded with the perfect mixer for seltzer, pet-nat, or your favorite booze.
“Shrubs were a very popular method of fruit preservation in the American colonial period, partially because water was very unsafe to drink at the time,” says cocktail historian Al Culliton, who operates Al’s Cocktail Club. “I am a big fan; they give a beautiful tanginess to otherwise heavy drinks, they’re stable enough to keep for longer than citrus juice, and can be easily batched.”
While their medicinal and recreational uses go way back in American culinary history, shrubs have easily made the leap to modern bars and grocery stores. You may recall the Great Drinking Vinegar Renaissance of the 2010s, when Pok Pok chef Andy Ricker riffed on Southeast Asia’s drinking vinegar tradition and American shrubs to create the Som cordial that captivated much of the food world. Today, those syrupy bottles have been rebranded from kombucha’s cousin to a cocktail-ready mixer, while new brands like Shrubbly and Drupefruit angle for the refrigerated aisle. But even with premade options clearly on the rise, it’s still worth your time to make shrubs, especially with summer’s bounty of fruit at the ready.
Don’t let the kombucha comparison fool you: Shrubs are exceptionally simple to make at home, no probiotic mushrooms or fermentation required. And the drinks you can mix up with shrubs, which pack a double-wallop of sweetness and acidity, are exceptional. It all comes down to a simple base recipe: 1½ cups fruit + 1 cup sugar + 1⁄4 teaspoon salt + 1 cup [any] vinegar.
First, combine the fruit, sugar, and salt in a large sealable jar or container and let it sit out at room temperature for a few hours. The salt and sugar will help draw out the fruit’s liquid via maceration. When the mixture looks properly juicy, add your vinegar and chill in the fridge for a few days to let the flavors meld. You could strain and use it immediately, but waiting those few days will draw out more of that precious fruit flavor.
This is a basic shrub formula, so consider it a jumping-off point and raid the fruit basket. I’ve made delicious shrubs with everything from early spring rhubarb to loquats pilfered from my parents’ backyard.
Brooke Marple, founder of the Salt Lake City shrub brand Drupefruit, is a wealth of flavor inspiration. She spikes honeydew and kiwi with perilla, and gilds ripe strawberries with basil and balsamic. Marple says her concoctions often aim to hit three main flavor notes: something juicy and sweet (fruit, obviously), a spicy midtone like habanero or ginger to balance out the vinegar’s punch, and a grounding, earthy bass note (beets, tomato). She lets sensational, hyper-seasonal fruit like oro blanco and mulberry stand alone in a nod to the historical significance of shrubs as a form of fruit preservation.
Whatever ingredients you plan to use, consider their natural sweetness and juiciness before adapting the recipe. Marple helps speed up maceration for harder ingredients like ginger and celery by blending, grating, or otherwise breaking them down. She also muddles or bruises herbs to express their aromatic oils, and removes the rind and pith from citrus to ward off unwanted bitterness.
Sugar and salt help draw out the juices in ingredients, so play with ratios based on the juiciness of your chosen produce. “With juicy stuff like watermelon, reduce the sugar to half of what you’d normally use and then up the salt,” says Culliton. “A savory tomato shrub will also be much better if you don’t have a ton of sugar in there.”
Next, consider the vinegar. Raw, organic, unfiltered vinegar is packed with probiotics and will make for the most active fermentation. Shrub-making is a great opportunity to experiment with some of the intensely probiotic small-batch vinegars on the market — I made an exceptional strawberry-rhubarb-chamomile shrub with Acid League’s Meyer Lemon Honey vinegar — but classic Bragg works great, too. Vinegar also develops the final shrub by melding with the fruit’s juice, allowing for some cool mix-and-match flavor opportunities. Looking for some thought starters? Culliton likes to pair pineapple with sherry vinegar, blueberries with apple cider vinegar, red fruits like strawberries and raspberries with red wine vinegar, and stone fruit with white wine vinegar.
Once your shrub is chilled and strained, it’s time to play bartender. Start by stirring a tablespoon into seltzer or iced tea for an ultra-refreshing afternoon drink … or break out the booze. Culliton recommends swapping in shrub for citrus juice to make a simple sour: 2 ounces of an unaged spirit + ¾ ounce shrub + ½ to ¾ ounce simple syrup.
Shrubs can be great for shaken drinks because of vinegar’s body and texture, says Ned King, bar manager of Gigantic in Easthampton, Massachusetts. He makes a 19th-century-style raspberry shrub for Roosevelt Punch, a drink made with cognac, Madeira, Jamaican rum, cold brew, and raspberry shrub, inspired by a punch that Theodore Roosevelt served at a party in 1902.
At Reception Bar on New York’s Lower East Side, Korean pear shrub is shaken with Lapsang-infused soju and eucalyptus bitters for a drink called Smokes. “Alcohol and vinegar react when shaken to create a foamy texture that’s similar to egg whites, but less eggy and stiff,” says owner Katie Rue. “When it’s fresh, you can see a full half-inch of foam at the top.”
There are many ways to use shrubs beyond the bar. Splash some into a jam or fruit crisp to amp up the flavor, mix it into vinaigrettes, or drizzle it over a platter of mozzarella. Borrow a page from Marple’s book and make an ice cream float! Depending on what fruit you’ve used, there might be an opportunity to use the spent fruit “pickles” too. “I recently did a strawberry rhubarb basil shrub and once I strained it, the beautiful strawberries still had flavor and integrity,” Marple says. “I cooked them down into a chutney, because they had the sourness, fruity chunkiness, and sweetness that a chutney needs.”
As for my next shrub project, I’m looking to my own overflowing fruit bowl for inspiration. Delicate sour cherries and pudgy donut peaches have arrived at the market, and suddenly I’m researching ways to buy red wine vinegar in bulk. Even my windowsill herbs feel destined to be tossed into a jar of macerated fruit. It’s going to be a sticky, sweet summer.