The Versatility and Complexity of Shrubs

Shrubs are a game-changer for the home mixologist looking to take their cocktails to another level

By Lido Vizzutti
Glacier Distilling Company's Trailblazer cocktail is made with Fireweed Cherry Bourbon and Blood Orange Charred Rosemary Shrub. Photo by Lido Vizzutti

A shrub, or drinking vinegar, is a non-alcoholic concentrated syrup made from fruit, sugar and sometimes herbs and spices steeped in a vinegar base. The result is a powerful and delicate combination of flavor-infused acid and sugar that adds a beautiful depth to a cocktail.

“I feel like shrubs really take things up a notch as far as flavors in a cocktail,” said Heather Recker, bar manager and mixologist at Glacier Distilling Company in Coram. “You have acidity, a sweetness and (sometimes a) savory herb. Shrubs are kind of the ultimate in terms of flavor pairings.”

According to Recker, the acid in the vinegar pulls out the sugars and intensifies the flavors of the fruit while adding a tartness to the mix.

“The main thing is they introduce acid into the cocktail without having to bring in a citrus,” said Brant Giovannetti, tasting room manager at Spotted Bear Spirits in Whitefish. “The acidity you get from a shrub to balance out the sugar is much more pleasant and calm on the palate. It’s easier to manipulate.”

“It’s a much softer way of flavoring,” he added.

For centuries, vinegar was used to preserve fruit and make water palatable, and was touted for medicinal properties. The modern version of the cocktail shrub comes from 17th century England. Colonial Americans brought the technique with them, eventually pouring the vinegar off from steeped fruit and mixing it with a sweetener. With the advent of the refrigerator, the use of vinegar as a preservative became unnecessary and the process was more or less lost to history. The craft cocktail resurgence over the past decade has again popularized the product. 

Shrubs are a game-changer for the home mixologist looking to take their cocktails to another level. They are simple, versatile and complex in flavor. They should also be thought out and practiced. Patience will yield inspiring results.

Choose a sweetener (like white granular, turbinado or honey), a vinegar (apple cider is most popular but explore with balsamic, red wine or champagne) and a fruit that might pair well.

There are recipes for a hot method, where the sugar and vinegar are heated, the fruits and spices are added and simmered until the flavors are extracted. There are also cold-method recipes, where the elements are added to a container and steeped overnight or for days.

“Some people might like the more-tart vinegar flavor they impart,” Recker said. “If you like it a little sweeter, you might add a little more of the fruit.”

Shrubs can also be used apart from alcohol. They make wonderful mocktails, can be drizzled on fish, used as a glaze for grilled meats or mixed with olive oil for a salad dressing. Shrubs are easy to make and are a wonderful way to use and preserve fruit through the season.

Like any good cocktail, made to taste is paramount. 

Giovannetti said he’s working on a strawberry rhubarb shrub for summer. For spring, he suggests the Blueberry Sage Shrub from Spotted Bear.

“The blueberries are fairly sweet, and the sage brings out a nice herbaceous quality,” he said. “The limoncello is kind of a natural pair for that.”

Recker said the shrubs available at Glacier Distilling change with the seasons, and she likes to play around with huckleberries and Flathead cherries. Not sure where to start? Purchase a bottle and mixer from Glacier Distilling, which provides a recipe to make the Trailblazer at home.

“The possibilities are endless,” Giovannetti said. “You can go anywhere with these things.”

Where to get it: The Blueberry Sage Shrub is available seasonally at Spotted Bear Spirits in Whitefish and the Blood Orange Charred Rosemary Shrub is available at Glacier Distilling Co. and Josephine’s Bar & Kitchen in Coram. Visit www.spottedbearspirits.com and www.glacierdistilling.com for more information.  


The Ramblin Blues

• 1.5 oz. Spotted Bear Spirits Limoncello

• 1.5 oz. Blueberry Sage Shrub

Directions: Build in a Collins glass. Fill ice 3/4 to the top, add limoncello and blueberry sage shrub. Top with sparkling soda. Garnish with a lemon wheel or blueberry and rolled lemon peel skewer.

The Trailblazer

• 2 oz. Fireweed Cherry Bourbon from Glacier Distilling Company

• 1.5 oz. Blood Orange Charred Rosemary Shrub 

Directions: Shake well and pour into a rocks glass over ice. Top with sparkling soda. Squeeze and add a wedge of orange. Garnish with a sprig of spanked rosemary.

Home Tips

• Use non-reactive containers to mix and store your shrubs as the acetic acid in vinegar can react with some metals and cause the mixture to blacken.

• Cold method: Letting your mix steep for 24-36 hours will deepen and enrich the flavors even further.

• Hot method: Don’t overheat the shrubs, as they can become bitter or burnt in taste.

• Customize your mix to suit your taste. Less sugar for a tart, herbaceous vinegar finish. More sugar for a sweeter, fruitier finish. “With tart fruits such as citrus and sour cherry, I like using local, raw honey to provide a sweet/tart balance. Stevia, agave nectar and pure maple syrup are also excellent alternatives if you are wanting to steer away from processed sugar,” Recker says. 

• Fresh fruit is always best.

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