Picture a kind of linen closet with a window to the outside. That was the refrigerator in my grandparents’ kitchen, where I grew up. The average temperature during a Latvian winter (September yhrough May… just kidding) is well below freezing, so the refrigerator worked most of the time, but you wouldn’t bet your food supply on it. Every fall, when school started and the children got out of the way, the refrigerator got filled with jars of fruit and berries submerged in sugar and vinegar, to preserve them. This was the only way to have access to produce during the months until the next growing season. The vegetables and herbs went into decanters filled with vodka. Think what you may of beets, but they make a beautiful magenta infusion. There were horseradish roots, entire dill plants, sometimes barks of trees, all suspended in the gradually darkening spirits. These would come off the shelves and onto the dinner table, and be served neat in etched silver glasses. The vinegared fruit was used in desserts and sometimes breakfasts, but the liquid that remained in the jars became the first drink mixers.
The term shrub originally referred to the preserved fruit, but I have a theory that it was more about the beverage all along – “shrub” comes from the Arabic word sharab, which means “to drink.” Now that we have dropped the charade, a shrub is a cocktail made by mixing a spirit with a vinegar based infusion. Shrubs are tangy and refreshing, and they are a delicious way to drink your vinegar at happy hour. Technically, shrubs and cocktails never crossed paths because shrubs thrived before refrigeration, and cocktails depend on ice for chilling and diluting, but with a renewed interest in drinking vinegar, the two are starting to co-mingle. So I offer you more of a method than a recipe, and it is infinitely versatile to customize to your preferences.
A basic shrub is easy: heat up equal parts of sugar and vinegar, mix until the sugar dissolves, and pour the solution over some cut up fruit. Vinegar is a great solvent and will pull out the flavor of any plant you like. Fruit with a lot of acid are a good option, or go for something that is not easily accessible in its own – pomegranates, for example, are difficult to get into, but they make a lovely shrub, beautiful in color and flavor. So the world is your oyster here – take any flavor you like and infuse a vinegar with it. And play with the sugar content until it’s the right sweetness for you; you may need to adjust that ratio based on the fruit. Let the infusion sit for at least a day, but it will be perfectly fine for much longer, and you’ll see the color and flavor intensify with time. If the final result is too bitter for your taste, add a pinch of salt – salt binds to the bitter receptors on your tongue blocking them from sensing the bitter flavors. (Works great in a pot of coffee, too!)
Now that we’ve got the building blocks, pick your poison – any liquor will work. Stick to the clear ones if you want to highlight the flavor of the fruit. One of the advantages of using vinegar infusions rather than citrus juice for your acid is that the cocktail will stay clear after you shake it. Go for the brown liquor if you are more interested in tasting the spirit. Splash two ounces of it into the shaker, add an ounce of your vinegar, and build from there. You may need a touch more lemon or lime, or maybe some honey; if the cocktail is too intense, try topping it with club soda or, better yet, sparkling wine. See if it goes better over ice in a collins glass or straight up in a coupe. Garnish with your preserved fruit and enjoy.
Strawberry Basil Shrub
To make the shrub: combine a pint of cleaned strawberries with a bunch of basil, cover with a quart of hot 1:1 sugar and vinegar solution, let cool and stand for a few hours, then strain and refrigerate for up to a month. Shake two ounces of a dry gin with an ounce of strawberry basil vinegar, strain into a collins glass filled with ice, top with sparkling wine.
Twist a basil leaf and run it around the rim of the glass, then drop inside with a strawberry.
To your health!