History is a curious cycle indeed. Throughout time, figuring out how to procure enough to eat and drink was our chief concern. Then, once we had it, making sure it didn’t spoil presented a new set of challenges.
Now in a time of abundance, refrigeration has changed the dynamic. Still, we’re drawn to the allure of the past, particularly in the cocktailing world, which is always looking for ways to make life more difficult (we’re not quite joking). It just so happens that doing things the old-fashioned way offers an appealing drinking experience. This is certainly the way with shrubs.
The term shrub here refers to an acidulated beverage comprised of fruit, sugar, and vinegar, a Colonial-era method of making sure fruit didn’t spoil. In cocktails, shrubs have been showing up as an ingredient for a few years. The idea is to balance the sweetness of a cocktail with an acidic counterpoint.
The method for making a shrub is straightforward, says Sam Gabrielli, of Russell House Tavern in Harvard Square. “You’re making a syrup, and just adding a third ingredient, using vinegar instead of water.” He has experimented with all manner of flavors in shrubs, and most fresh, ripe fruits will do — blueberries, cherries, apples — although he finds strawberries to be one of the most successful. He was using a strawberry shrub in a Pimm’s Cup-style cocktail for a while. Depending on how ripe and sweet the fruit is, you need to balance it with vinegar. Start with equal parts berries and vinegar and tweak the ratio to taste. “You can easily make it at home,” says Gabrielli.
For his So What (pictured), a cucumber shrub cocktail, he was looking for a gin, cucumber, and mint recipe he could put on the menu that wasn’t just like a “T.G.I. Friday’s gin mojito variation.” He keeps the cucumber shrub for about a month. (Use a variety of spirits with it at home, particularly tequila or mezcal in a margarita-style cocktail.)
Gabrielli had also been playing around with salt in cocktails to up the savory quotient. “I thought it was a good combination to have the contrasting cooling qualities, and add some savoriness to it,” he says.