Sips and Tips

Shrubs: Merging Cocktail Culture with Local Foods

By Sarah Schneider / Photography By Alexandra Privitera | Last Updated June 01, 2017
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blueberries

Shrubs are making a comeback in cocktail culture thanks to their versatility and unique ability to preserve strong flavor values, melding acidic heights with sugary peaks and providing an excellent flourish for any cocktail.

At merge bar and restaurant in Buffalo, it’s always been my mission to integrate local produce into our menus, even throughout the colder months. I quickly realized that I needed to work on preserving the harvest, so I’ve been playing with “shrubs” for both nonalcoholic and alcoholic cocktails. This past year, we made pumpkin cinnamon, blueberry, strawberry rhubarb, and grapefruit thyme shrubs.

But let’s take a step back and talk about what a shrub is. Dating back before the 19th century, shrubs were made by processing fruit or vegetables with a sweetener and a vinegar as a means of preserving their perishable essences. Historically, shrubs, such as bitters, were popularized due to their benefits for digestion. As with other fermented foods, such as kombucha and sauerkraut, the vinegar in shrubs was known to aid weaknesses in people’s digestive tracts in a time when refrigeration was not yet commonplace.

Today, shrubs are making a comeback in cocktail culture thanks to their versatility and unique ability to preserve strong flavor values, melding acidic heights with sugary peaks and providing an excellent flourish for any cocktail. At the bar, we make three to four juices a day, so it’s nice to create something that can withstand the test of time. Technically, shrubs preserve for months—not that they ever last that long on our shelf.

Shrubs are relatively simple to make, and there are many ways to make them, so it’s really fun to experiment. Some shrubs can be ready in a day; others are better after a month of aging. You can make your own vinegar (I love Sandor Ellix Katz’s book Wild Fermentation for inspiration), or you can use any type of vinegar you have on hand.

Last year, I experimented with making a lilac wine from a lilac bush which has been in my family for generations, an ode to Grandma Vogt and her perseverance. Unfortunately, in the throes of all our summer business and gardening, I didn’t have the time to bottle it so it has now fermented into a lovely lilac vinegar. Once you start experimenting, it’s easy to keep going. You can always play with flavors through the addition of herbs or spices as you’re mixing the fruit and sugar.

At merge, shrub syrups serve as the foundation for our homemade sodas and we also build cocktails with them. And when you reduce a shrub, you end up with a delightful gastrique that has many culinary applications.

> Merge: 439 Delaware Ave, Buffalo; 716-842-0600

Blueberry Shrub Mocktail

blueberry shrub
I've put together the directions for a simple blueberry shrub, which can be combined with soda water for a refreshing summer mocktail or used in the recipe for the "El Chapo in New York," a twist on a...

El Chapo in New York Cocktail

el chapo shrub cocktail
"El Chapo in New York," is a twist on a traditional margarita that we've been serving at merge for many years.  

Quick Apple or Pear Shrub

This quick apple and pear shrub can be combined with soda water for a refreshing summer mocktai or mixed into a cocktail.
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