Your Guide to Shrubs (Not the Topiary Sort…) and Infusions
School’s back in session; the pools are closing; and it’s not long until the leaves start turning and there’s a chill in the air. But just because summer is on the wane doesn’t mean you have to say goodbye to all of the fabulous fruits and vegetables of the season. By utilizing them in infusions and shrubs (and I’m not talking a woody plant), you can enjoy the tastes of summer in your cocktails all year round.
There are all sorts of “flavored” spirits on the markets these days. If you have a hankering for some additional flavor notes in your booze, though, why not take the DIY route and impart hints of your favorite summer fruits, veggies or herbs in your favorite spirit? These infusions are different than the type done during the distilling process, when ingredients are steeped in a liquid prior to it being put through the still. The infusion process we’re talking about here is really a maceration: letting an ingredient or ingredients soak in a spirit for a period of time. The sky’s the limit on what flavors you can pair up, and the process couldn’t be simpler: Just put your chopped fruit or veggies in a jar, cover with the spirit and cover with a lid. Place the jar in a cool, dark place and wait for the flavors to start melding. Once the taste is to your liking, strain the solids out and bottle up your new booze.
Although there are no hard and fast rules for infusing, there are a couple of items to keep in mind: The higher the proof of the alcohol you’re using, the quicker it’ll extract flavor. So if you’re using an 80-proof vodka, it’ll take longer to get the job done than if you were to use a 120-proof neutral grain spirit. Keep in mind that some ingredients infuse faster than others, so it’s imperative to taste your concoction often. It’s also a good idea to peel veggies before letting them soak as the peels can impart bitterness to the final product.
A combination of sugar, acid (usually vinegar) and fruits or vegetables, these beverages originated centuries ago as a way to preserve the harvest. These creations were imbibed as a refreshing drink reputed to be a remedy for a variety of ills from colds to scurvy. At some point, a thirsty individual added spirits to the mix to make a tasty alcoholic tipple. After the advent of refrigeration, it wasn’t necessary to go to all that trouble to preserve produce, and shrubs fell out of favor. But in recent years, the craft cocktail revival has mixologists rediscovering shrubs’ sweet and sour charms and using them to create a variety of tasty libations.
Shrubs can be made in a couple of basic ways: Heat the sugar and fruit on a stovetop, and then wait for it to cool before adding the vinegar. Or, put the fruit and sugar in the refrigerator for a period of time, then strain off the resulting syrup and combine it with the vinegar. My advice? Try both and judge for yourself.
This simple process, whether done hot or cold, is the starting point for an unlimited number of possibilities. For example, different types of sugars can be used to different effect: Standard white cane sugar is probably most commonly used and produces a light sweetness. Dark sugars, like turbinado, produce richer molasses notes. There are also myriad vinegars available for experimenting. Apple cider vinegar is the one I use the most, but other variants produce a panoply of results: Champagne vinegar tends to be lighter, while red wine and balsamic varieties veer to the heavier side. Again, play around and see which fruits and vegetables pair best with which vinegar. When you come up with your perfect combo, try it with several different spirits. I guarantee no one will complain about the results.
Try This At Home
Nowadays there’s a good selection of shrubs available at your local specialty grocer: Larder & Cupboard, for example, has several tasty ones in stock. But if you’re in a DIY mood, making a shrub at home is a pretty straightforward affair. While the stovetop method is quickest, the cold version yields more flavor because the fruit isn’t actually cooked, according to author Michael Dietsch in his book, “Shrubs: An Old Fashioned Drink For Modern Times.”
If you’re going the cold route, here’s a super-simple recipe I got from Joel Clark of Sasha’s on Shaw:
Eighteen-Hour Cold Shrub
1 cup | dark fruit of choice
1 cup | sugar
.5 oz | apple cider vinegar
Combine fruit and sugar in a bowl and refrigerate for 12 hours. Remove and let sit at room temperature for six hours. Strain the juice into a bottle or jar, add vinegar and refrigerate. Makes approximately 1.5 cups.
As long as it’s kept in the fridge, this shrub has a pretty long shelf life. Just taste it occasionally to make sure it’s still tangy and vibrant.
What I’m drinking now: Sour beers
Lately I’ve been making a point of quaffing sour beers. Although they can be a challenge to the palette at first, give these tart brews a chance—they yield some really surprising flavors.
Matt Sorrell has been a dining and spirits contributing editor for ALIVE for the past four years (and an ALIVE writer for seven). He has worked at several bars around town and currently can be found behind the bar at Planter’s House in Lafayette Square.
A graduate of the BarSmarts Advanced course, he recently attended the BAR five-day course in NYC, where he achieved a BAR certified rating. He and his wife, Beth, also own Cocktails Are Go!, which provides libation education and bartender services.
Thirsty for more libation information? Check out Matt’s bourbon breakdown here.
This story appeared in the September 2015 issue.