Friends don’t let friends miss out on all the cool, under-the-radar things they know about, like where to buy ultra-fashionable clothes at decidedly non-runway prices or which little-known beauty brand is low-key making the best highlighter around. And because we consider our readers to be like friends, we decided to gather together all our best tips in a new series: Don’t Sleep on This. Check in every week to see what things we can’t wait to share with you.
This summer when I was in Hudson, New York, I ended up in the very popular Rivertown Tavern for dinner. And while the seasonal, then-Mexican-inspired menu (inspiration rotates monthly) was mention-worthy, it was the cocktail I drank that stuck with me after the night ended. A concoction of gin, tonic, and strawberry-rhubarb shrub, it was equal parts tart and sweet, fruity and refreshing, the perfect drink for summer. After buying the shrub that I assumed the cocktail was made from—The Hudson Standard in strawberry-rhubarb—in a home store next-door to the restaurant, and recreating the drink many times at home since then, I can confirm: It's the best drink I had all summer—and the shrub has everything to do with it.
Made using fruit, vinegar, and a sweetener, shrubs are delicious cocktail mixers, providing that perfect balance of fruitiness and acidity. (They also make for great mocktails; I have taken to adding shrubs to seltzer for a weeknight drink.) "The idea behind a cocktail is to hit many tasting notes on the tongue—sweet, sour, umami, and bitter—and shrubs are an easy way to add the first three. They provide sweetness, tartness, and bright fruit flavor," says Emily Woerthman, "head shrub dealer" at The Hudson Standard, explaining why shrub cocktails make for such good cocktails. "Just add bitters to the cocktail, and you've hit all four." Bonus: Shrubs don't go bad as fast as, say, a lemon or lime that you would typically use for an at-home drink. According to Woerthman, "Because of the preserving quality of vinegar, shrubs have a very long shelf life. They easily outlast fresh-squeezed citrus which oxidizes quickly," making them a maintenance-free choice for at-home bartenders who may not always have more than a dried half of a week-old lime. (Or, is that just me?)
Shrubs are not a new product by any means. With more people taking apple cider vinegar shots in the morning, as a means of improving digestion, drinking vinegars have steadily risen in popularity in the last few years. "Many cultures drink acids before or with meals, and herbal tinctures or liqueurs after meals, as a way to improve digestion. My experience is mostly from living in Italy, where this practice is routine and where talking about digestion is more common," Don Morton, founder of Shrub District, says. "Cocktails are a great way to prime the digestive tract, as acids help break down food and provide a nice balance to cut fats and heavier foods."
He likens the popularity of shrubs to the general rise in interest in fermented foods. "American consumers are becoming more familiar with the fermented flavors of things like vinegar, yogurt, olives, kombucha, kefir, lacto-fermented pickles, kraut, and kimchi. Shrubs provide a way to bring these fermented flavors into the bar space." In addition to being digestion aids, shrubs, made from natural ingredients and real fruit, are also generally healthier than average mixers, many of which contain artificial coloring and flavors, additives, and high-fructose corn syrup.
Plus, taste-wise, shrubs offer more diversity in a space that's been reliant on citrus for too long. "Bartenders have a wide range of spirits and sweeteners—in the form of liqueurs or syrups—but the choice of acids has been mostly lime and lemon. Shrubs give us a great way to increase the complexity of cocktails by expanding the palate of acids," says Morton.
Ready to try? To make a simple cocktail, mix one part shrub with two parts liquor of choice and three parts sparkling water or premium tonic (like Fever-Tree), and top with ice. When deciding which flavors to pair with which spirit, keep the top notes or main fruit profile in mind. For instance, something spice-infused (think: turmeric, cinnamon, or allspice) works better with warmer liquors like a bourbon, rum, or rye; fruity or berry flavors work best with clear spirits; citrus and herbal flavors go with most spirits. Though, as Woerthman points out, "Shrubs are a 'choose-your-own-adventure.' They are versatile and allow people to experiment with uniquely delicious products that help them create better-for-you beverages." Cheers to that!
Below, check out some shrub cocktail recipes.