Some like it sour
Sour is an essential component in cocktails. Freshly squeezed lemon and lime… they’re our friends, right? We don’t cringe when recipes call for an ounce or two. But vinegar? That’s another story.
Vinegar is of course a familiar culinary ingredient, but one we’re more comfortable cooking with than drinking. Which is why a recent visit with Arturo Vera-Felicie, bar manager at The Farmhouse, proved so fascinating.
Vera-Felicie pulled out half-gallon jars of his orange-clove shrub and tamarind-lime drinking vinegar, and then set about making a fresh batch of apple-cinnamon shrub. All of them are made with fruit, vinegar and sugar. All have a characteristic sour twang. All are tasty and versatile. So what makes them different?
“The biggest difference between a drinking vinegar and a shrub is the amount of sugar you use,” Vera-Felicie said. “Drinking vinegars are much more sour, with more vinegar than sugar. Shrubs are usually equal parts vinegar and sugar.”
Shrubs have been around for centuries; 12 Bottle Bar carefully traces the word’s origin as used for beverages. David Wondrich’s Punch counts shrubs—there defined as a combination of sugar and juice—as one of the four pillars of proper punch.
They’re now enjoying something of a second coming, thanks to relentlessly curious bartenders like Vera-Felicie, who started toying with shrubs back in 2009 while working at R Bar. He made what he then called a pickled fig syrup, mixed it with Hendrick’s gin, egg white, gomme syrup and lime juice, called the drink a West Side Social Club and won the Greater Kansas City Bartending Competition.
Once installed as bar manager of The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, he turned his attention to house-made sodas. His kola, ginger and other versions were dry and complex on their own; combined with spirits they made a memorable highball.
Then he visited Pok Pok (a restaurant known for its street-style Thai food) during last year’s Portland Cocktail Week. That left him jazzed about drinking vinegars. Now, he’s bringing all those toys out to play at The Farmhouse.
To make a shrub, Vera-Felicie roughly chops enough fruit to fill a half-gallon glass canning jar three-quarters full. He tamps it with a muddler to crush the fruit and release the juice and oils, then adds enough more to bring it back up to mark. Any spices also go into the jar at this point.
Next comes the vinegar. Vera-Felicie has used apple cider, rice wine, red wine and other vinegars—whatever the kitchen has on hand that he thinks will marry well with the flavors. He adds enough to cover the fruit, caps the jar, gives it a shake and refrigerates it for about a week. Exactly how long depends on the contents; the only way to know for certain is to taste every day or two.
Once he’s happy with the flavor, Vera-Felicie strains the shrub through a chinois, simmers the liquid for about an hour and sweetens it with raw or turbinado sugar. How much sugar depends on the quantity of liquid; Vera-Felicie’s also used honey and molasses.
That was the case with his orange-clove shrub: he made a basic shrub with whole cloves, oranges and apple cider vinegar. After a week, he strained and reduced the liquid. Vera-Felicie could have then added sugar. Instead, he used a house-made orange soda syrup. (Fix the Pumps is a modern soda-making bible; Gilt Taste also offers good guidelines.)
The results play well with bourbon, Vera-Felicie said, but he uses it mostly to make a non-alcoholic sweet-dry orange-clove soda. Turning shrub syrups into sodas is easy: just mix 1 ounce shrub syrup with 7-8 ounces club soda. Or, copy Vera-Felicie and combine 6 ounces shrub syrup with 24 ounces water in a Twist ‘N’ Sparkle to produce a whole bottle of soda.
Drinking vinegars also make terrific sodas, albeit with a bit more pucker. When I was in, Vera-Felicie had tamarind-lime and apple-juniper drinking vinegars in play. To make them, he combined fruit and vinegar in that big ole jar and let it rest a week; then he strained, cooked and sweetened it with about 4 ounces of raw sugar.
From there, “it’s like building an old, classic soda that’s not charged,” Vera-Felicie said. “You do an ounce of drinking vinegar with 7-8 ounces of soda water, and it gives you a bubbly, sour soda.”
The results—at least when it came to the tamarind-lime—are balanced, with hints of earthy sweetness and a bright finish. Vera-Felicie pairs it with Hayman’s Old Tom gin in both highballs and a silver fizz, but I found the n/a soda version almost addictive.
Vera-Felicie offered to pour the rest of mine in a to-go cup so I could take it with me. Instead, I think I’ll just make plans to go back.
Shrubs and drinking vinegars are more about proportion, experimentation and practice than they are exact measurements. You can make them the way Vera-Felicie does, on the stove, but there are other methods as well. These links can help get you started.
Shrub recipes and cocktail proportions, from 12 Bottle Bar
Peach Drinking Vinegar, a recipe from Brian Marcum of Portland’s Pok Pok
More on drinking vinegars, from The New York Times