by Risa Nye
What throwback to the colonial days has both shaken and stirred the world of craft cocktails over the last several years? Take a moment to imagine that bygone time—when people were skeptical (with good cause) about drinking water , so they hit the taverns for liquid refreshment to quench their thirst instead. If you’re thinking of cider, you’re getting warm. But the answer is shrub, or “drinking vinegar.” And if the idea of drinking vinegar makes you pucker up, wait until we get to the tasting session at Shrub & Co.
Shrub actually refers to any acidulated beverage made from fruit juice, sugar and other ingredients. In the years before refrigeration, making shrub with the seasonal harvest of berries, stone fruit and apples was the favored way to preserve the fruit. Colonial tipplers weren’t averse to adding some spirits to this mixture either. According to an article I ran across in Serious Eats:
“. . . histories don’t usually mention that our colonial forefathers (and mothers) swam in a sea of booze from breakfast till bedtime. Whether they were working, writing, selling goods, getting married, or even fighting, early Americans were often tipsy—their incessant drinking a cultural extension of Old World beliefs that fermented beverages were safer than water. The colonial-era day didn’t begin until after a dram of bitters or stiffener of beer. By the time the Revolutionary War began, the adults of the thirteen colonies drank an impressive amount of alcohol—the equivalent of several shots every day.”
[For an in-depth look at what they drank and how much they drank, take a look at Corin Hirsch’s book: Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England: From Flips and Rattle-Skulls to Switchel and Spruce Beer . (Amazon or Indiebound)]
Today, the formula for shrub is essentially the same as it was in colonial times: the 21st century version is the result of blending fruit and vinegar, along with sugar and aromatics, to create a sweet and tangy element to pair with a variety of spirits—or, for non-alcoholic options, you can add shrub to any sparkling water. In Toby Cecchini’s 2008 article (“Dropping Acid”) in The New York Times , he suggests all there is to it is to “find a good-quality apple cider or wine-vinegar, soak any fresh fruit in it for a week, then add sugar, boil for an hour, strain and bottle it up.”
But an even better way to experience the best of this “sweet and tangy” elixir is to visit the nearest Whole Foods or your local bottle shop and look for the eight varieties of shrub produced by Shrub & Co.
I recently sat down with Juan Garcia, co-owner of Shrub & Co, to find out more about this locally made new-old addition to modern mixology. The company was founded by Garcia and his wife Deborah Marskey, along with Matt and Marianna Bruns, after they had met and become friends in Atlanta, GA. Although I missed the weekly bottling operation on the day I met with Garcia, I did get to hear the story of how this friendship sparked an idea for a product that enables bartenders (like Matt, who tends bar at Berkeley’s Corso) and home cocktail enthusiasts alike to create a variety of fresh, thirst-quenching libations.
Two and a half years ago, Juan, Deborah, Matt and Marianna all came to California to set up shop. Their shrub bottling operation is located at 2701 8th Street in Berkeley, and they now produce eight varieties of shrub: Apple, Spicy Ginger, Grapefruit, Strawberry with Meyer Lemon, Cranberry with Douglas Fir, Peach, Wildflower Honey, and Blood Orange with Cardamom. When I asked how they arrived at these flavors, Garcia explained that all decisions are made according to majority rule. It’s a long process that begins in their home kitchen. The evolution of a new shrub flavor involves playing around with different vinegars and varying amounts of the other ingredients, making several batches, and holding blind taste tests. The shrub has to hold up to the spirits it will likely be paired with. For example, the peach and the ginger have to hold up to bourbon, as does the cranberry. And speaking of the cranberry, I wondered about the role of Douglas Fir here. From a seasonal point of view, it makes some sense: these two elements do belong together, evoking traditional winter holiday flavors and scents. Garcia mentioned that he’d tasted an Eau de Vie of Douglas Fir in Portland, really liked the way it cleansed the palate, and thought it would pair well with the cranberry shrub. “We made a small batch,” he says, and “fell in love with it.”
Shrub & Co gets all the Douglas Fir they need for large batch production from Alicia Funk at the Living Wild Project. Garcia emphasized that they have a personal connection to other suppliers as well, including the farming couple in Plymouth, Massachusetts, who tend the bog that provides cranberries that go into the shrub. The apples and strawberries come from Watsonville, the grapefruits come from San Diego, and the ginger comes from Peru where the growing season is longest.
I sampled cranberry, apple, grapefruit—and ginger, which Garcia refers to as “the palate destroyer.” (That may be, but it’s also their best seller, accounting for 40% of their sales.) I’ll admit that I had a few reservations about the tasting session. I’m not a big fan of vinegar, to be honest. But I have to agree with Cecchini in the way he describes the taste of shrub as a “revelation: shockingly refreshing, tart, and fruity….” The fruit flavors exploded, the vinegar added tartness, but stayed in the background, and the addition of sparkling water gave each sampling a celebratory fizz. (This was a post-colonial, spirit-free tasting, by the way.)
Even after the reappearance of shrub in the world of cocktail innovators across the country, Garcia estimates that only “5% of people” have heard of them. That should change, though, as Shrub & Co has expanded its audience to 18 states across the US, as well as Canada, the UK and Australia. Whole Foods juice bars are now featuring sodas with Shrub & Co products. And who knows? The world may soon be ready to embrace a vinegar-based soda. Keep an open mind.
To celebrate the flavors of summer right now, why not enjoy a Peach Old Fashioned or a Whiskey Berry Cocktail? And as you do, raise a glass to the colonial forefathers and foremothers, who would no doubt gladly return the gesture.
SHRUB & CO ® COCKTAIL INSPIRATIONS
Blood Orange Sparkler
- Glass of sparkling wine
- ¾ oz. Shrub & Co Blood Orange Cardamom Shrub
Pour sparkling wine over shrub in a champagne flute. Enjoy.
- 2 oz. tequila
- 1 oz. fresh lime juice
- ½ oz. Shrub & Co Spicy Ginger
- ½ oz. simple syrup
Shake ingredients over ice and strain into an ice-filled glass.
- 3-4 oz. club soda
- 2 oz. vodka
- 1 oz. fresh lime juice
- ¾ oz. Shrub & Co Spicy Ginger
Pour vodka, lime juice and shrub into ice-filled glass. Add club soda, stir and garnish with a lime wheel.
Whiskey Berry Cocktail
- 2 oz. bourbon or rye
- ¾ oz. Shrub & Co Strawberry
- ¼ oz. sweet vermouth
- ¼ oz. fresh lemon juice
- Fresh mint leaves (about 6)
Muddle mint in a shaker. Combine other ingredients, add ice then shake. Strain into glass.
- 1 ½ oz. white rum
- ½ oz. Shrub & Co Grapefruit
- ½ oz. fresh lime juice
- ¼ oz. maraschino liqueur
Shake ingredients over ice, strain into a chilled glass and garnish with lime.
- 3-4 oz. sparkling wine
- ¾ oz. Shrub & Co Peach
- ¼ oz. fresh lemon juice (optional)
Pour shrub and lemon juice into a champagne flute.
Risa Nye lives in Oakland. Her articles and essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Monthly, Hippocampus magazine, and several anthologies. She writes about cocktails as Ms. Barstool for Nosh at berkeleyside.com and about other things at risanye.com.