Spirits: Vinegary 'shrubs' are growing on people
Shrubs, vinegar-based fruit preserves, at Dish Osteria on the South Side.
Dish Osteria's Raelynn Harshman offers a strawberry balsamic shrub with Wigle rye whiskey and fresh basil.
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It's time I got around to writing about shrubs, and I don't mean the landscaping kind. I mean the kind that comes served in a glass. The shrub is a vinegar-and-fruit based pickled aperitif (or a mixer, or syrup, or cordial, or "drinking vinegar"), and it's the hottest old-is-new drink trend since whatever the last hot, old-is-new trend was. Barreled cocktails?
Perhaps sipping on vinegar sounds unappetizing, summoning to mind a jar of pickle juice or a bottle of spoiled wine. We tend to use vinegar, even milder or fruitier vinegars, more for cooking than for drinking. But vinegar flavors (kombucha, kurozu, certain sour ales) and tart acids (lemon and lime) are deeply ingrained into our worldwide imbibing history, much as the shrubs appear to be.
It is said that shrubs, a subgenus of other types of drinking vinegars that date back millennia, came about as a way of preserving fruit juices in pre-Colonial, pre-refrigerator days -- fruit spoils, but vinegar generally does not. The shrub's association with spirits and cocktails may have happened around the same time, during the 1700s, when smuggling barrels of duty-free booze from the European mainland into England was commonplace. There is some written evidence that shrubs were used to mask the briny flavor of bad gin and rum that had become bespoiled by seawater during the smuggling process, according to Tim Oakley's "Shrub: A History."
The word, and perhaps the original practice, can be traced to the Arabs, whose "sharab" means "drink" (and also is the root of the English words "syrup" and "sherbet"). The "shrubs" themselves are not distilled -- that is, it's not really a spirit -- but they sometimes can be slightly fermented or have alcohol added to them. Either way, fermented or alcohol-free, cordial or medicinal, they can be mixed effectively with booze -- or chilled soda, or sparking water and sugar, or you can drink them straight up as a shot.
The most common of these cocktails, by most accounts, was the rum shrub. "There was never any liquor so good as rum shrub," wrote William Makepeace Thackeray, the 19th-century English novelist. The shrubs seem to have been far more popular with John Bull than with the Americans, and eventually, the shrubs evolved from a masking agent to a stand-alone cocktail, with smuggling value of their own.
Rum shrubs were serious business, but they faded away, as vintage drinks often do. So did the brandy shrub, a recipe for which appears in an 1826 book called "The Vintner's, Brewer's, Spirit Merchant's, and Licensed Victualler's Guide" (and written by "a practical man," or so he claims on the title page):
"Oranges and lemons four each, loaf sugar two pounds, rub the sugar on the fruit till the whole of the yellow rind is taken off; then add one gallon of brandy, allow the sugar to dissolve in the spirit, mix and add one pint of orange juice, one pint of lemon juice, and two quarts of water that has been boiled and stood to cool."
Now, like so many other old-time cocktail trends, shrubs are being resurrected by adventurous bartenders who like to experiment with time-honored techniques, fresh syrups and savory -- nearly soured, in this case -- cocktails additives.
Raelynn Harshman, of Dish Osteria in the South Side, is one of those bartenders. A few months ago, she was experimenting with a lemon and beet shrub, which she mixed with vodka. Now she's worked up a strawberry and balsamic vinegar shrub to blend with rye, black pepper and some basil.
"It's the end of the fruit season," she said in explaining why shrubs are often produced, at least historically, in late summer or early fall. Though she's steeping the shrubs with designs on using them in cocktails, she said "they can definitely stand alone, with a little bit of soda water."
Over at Salt of the Earth in Garfield, bartender Maggie Meskey said that her family has been making shrub-like preserves for years, "to enjoy on cold and dreary winter mornings at breakfast." But for cocktail purposes, she's planning a trio of new shrubs for this winter: green tomato, cantaloupe and plum.
She says shrubs definitely have made a resurgence, at least when it comes to bar use among professionals, though it's less likely that customers will know about them. "I couldn't find anyone last year who had any clue what [a shrub] was," she said.
Still, they're popular enough that some produce farmers are making their own and selling them, pre-bottled, at places such as Whole Foods. There, you can find brands such as Pennsylvania's own Tait Farm shrubs.
Asked if the vinegar trend has a shelf life, Ms. Meskey noted that, by their very design, shrubs have shelf life, which is one of the reasons bartenders like them. Bartenders also appreciate their efficiency -- because a bottle of blackberry shrub can last for weeks, you don't have to slice or muddle blackberries each time you make a cocktail.
Monessen-raised Herman Mihalich (he lived above a bar, actually, which may have informed his later-in-life calling) is the founder and chief distiller behind Dad's Hat Pennsylvania Rye Whiskey, now available in Pennsylvania's state stores. The distillery is in Bristol, about 20 miles northeast of Philadelphia.
You can learn more about the product at dadshatrye.com or by calling 215-781-8300.
Harvard & Highland Cocktail Bar is now hiring. It's the bar set above Kevin Sousa's Union Pig & Chicken in East Liberty -- at the intersection of Harvard Street and North Highland Avenue.
The new-to-Pittsburgh Brazilian steak house chain, Texas de Brazil Churrascaria, has its liquor license and is set to open this year at 240 W. Station Square Dr., in the former Red Star space. The liquor license is being transferred from the former Lotus Garden on Saw Mill Run in Brentwood.
The patent infringement suit that Verona's American Beverage Corp. has filed against international booze giant Diageo still is working its way through federal courts. ABC, which owns the Daily's Cocktail brand, says Diageo's Captain Morgan Co. stole Daily's design for single-serving cocktail pouches, using it to sell its own "Parrot Bay" single-serving cocktails.
Daily's says the look, size and shape of the Parrot Bay pouches are nearly identical to the Daily's pouches, which have been on the market since 2005. A mediation session held July 13 did not resolve the complaint.
If you're interested in learning more about Pennsylvania's whiskey-making heritage, you may enjoy a whiskey class that the Post-Gazette is offering on Sept. 12 at the Fort Pitt Museum at Point State Park. I'll be there, along with museum education director Andrew Gardy, and Eric Meyer of Wigle Whiskey.
It's part of the PGU seminar series. You can register, and learn more about the series, at www.post-gazette.com/pgu.
My favorite shrub recipe is cantaloupe with white balsamic vinegar. I used 1 cantaloupe (rind removed, chopped, about 4 cups) and coated it with 1/4 cup of sugar. Cover and let sit overnight in fridge. Strain syrup. Yields about 2 cups. Add 4 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar and you have a shrub, with it, you can make this drink.
-- Raelynn Harshman
- 1 1/4 ounce Cantaloupe Shrub (above)
- 1 ounce Boyd & Blair vodka
- 1/2 ounce Tuaca
- 1 dash of Angostura bitters
Combine ingredients, top with soda and garnish with mint sprig.
-- Raelynn Harshman
First Published September 6, 2012 12:00 am