The Appeal of the Shrub (aka the Drinking Vinegar)
They're tart, housemade, plentiful in Seattle bars, and a splendid companion for spirits. To invert the lyrics of a certain late-'90s hip-hop trio, a shrub is a drink that can get some love from me.
Recently I visited Essex and Delancey (discovery of the night: Essex’s impeccable cocktail menu is also served at Delancey) but I was driving so I had to hang up my party pants after just one of Gary Abts’s drinks. So I ordered a housemade honey shrub to carry my through the next round.
Mixed with a bit of sparkling water, the shrub retained that familiar sweetness of honey–a surprisingly friendly acquaintance with vinegar’s gentle bite. It’s every bit as complex as a drink with booze. When we finally scored two seats at Delancey’s kitchen counter, owner Brandon Pettit pulled out a beer shrub that had spent the past month on a high shelf and was just now ready for prime time. He promised beer flavor, sans alcohol, in a vehicle way better than actual nonalcoholic beer.
However shrubs are also a splendid companion for spirits, as evidenced by their appearance at more bars around town. And like so many cocktail trends, they have old-timey roots. Just not Prohibition-era ones. The practice of cooking vinegar with sugar and some sort of fruit, and letting it age a bit, dates back to Colonial times. The results deliver all the flavors, but shedding vinegar's pucker while keeping its tart, and adding fruit flavor.
Pok Pok in Portland did much to fuel the nation's current love of shrubs, but Seattle has its own longstanding proponents. Like Jamie Boudreau since back in his Vessel days. And Joule, even when the restaurant, in its original Wallingford location, only served beer and wine.
Chef-owner Rachel Yang was inspired by the vinegary drinks common in Korea (usually billed as a system-flushing health beverage) and she thought the sour notes complimented the Asian-toned menu. While the new Joule has a full bar program, Yang says the kitchen staff still handles the shrubs.
"It's a really good vessel to bring in different flavors," says Yang. Shrubs also negate the need for common cocktail components like citrus and simple syrup–just add a spirit (and maybe some bitters or a liqueur) and you've got a perfectly tart drink on your hands.
That's definitely the case at Rocco's in Belltown, where bar manager Leroy Thomas has a whole build-your-own cocktail section of the menu dedicated to shrubs. Order one and you'll receive a tray with a shrub, a spirit, crushed ice, and a soda. Thomas determines the combinations (cranberry and mezcal, or watermelon-sage and tequila), you determine how sweet or tart you want the results to be.
The coming months will likely be shrub-ful, since fruit and herbs are coming back in season. In Seattle, at least, chefs and bartenders share a fondness for these drinking vinegars; if you think about it, they're not so different from a gastrique. Here are a few places around town that are making their own shrubs.
Vinegars in flavors like blackberry or fig make regular appearances in Adam Fortuna's brilliant cocktails
Jay Kuehner may have helped set up the bar program, but Matt Dillon and chef de cuisine Edouardo Jordan are the masterminds of shrubs in flavors like huckleberry, beet, and carrot. Now that herbs have arrived with the spring, Dillon says versions with lovage, lavender, and rosemary are in the works.
Between owner Brandon Pettit and bar manager Gary Abts, you can expect an adventurous shrub or two on the nonalcoholic portion of the menu.
Rachel Yang says she hadn't even heard the term "shrub" when she started envisioning a vinegar-based drink for the restaurant. She learned the term from the Food Lover's Companion. Even with a lovely new bar setup out front, Joule's kitchen staff still concocts the seasonal shrub option, using an 18-gallon stock bucket while the bar staff devises smaller-batch concoctions like syrups and infusions.
Powerhouse shrubs like a Satsuma-dark chocolate-balsamic blend come with soda or appear as ingredients on the house cocktail list.
Bar manager Leroy Thomas has been known to go foraging (with some guidance from his beloved "botanist nerd girl" lady friend) for good shrub ingredients. This time of year he especially likes them in a julep glass with crushed ice.