Shrubs are a complex form of syrups that contain any kind of botanical or fruit concentrate along with sugar and vinegar. They can be used to give acidity to any cocktail or non-alcoholic beverage without adding any form of citrus.
Bartenders mostly prefer using apple cider vinegar in the making process because of its inherent sugary profile; but one can experiment with a wide range of fruit vinegars.
Even the type of sugar can vary – from castor sugar to honey, from rice syrup to agave nectar. Due to their sugar and acidic nature, shrubs are perfect for a nice summer highball cocktail.
Shrubs can add depth and complexity and can be paired well with spirits, sparkling wine or even beers. Even non-tipplers can enjoy it with tonics or carbonated water.
The word ‘shrub’ comes from the Arabic word sharaab (‘to drink’). These vinegar cordials were common during British colonial times, where shrub makers would combine the botanicals with sugar and vinegar and let it all steep for a while.
They would then mix it with water to get a refreshing acidic beverage. This was a common method to preserve fruit at home, before refrigeration took over every household.
In India it was quite common to create kokum shrubs at home, especially along the western coast. Since kokum has natural vinegar flavors, its combination with sugar can make a wonderful concoction.
But soon after refrigeration became a common thing, the art of making shrubs at home waned. In the last decade, however, many bars have introduced this vinegar cordial back in a form of complex syrups.
Vinegar based shrubs started becoming popular again in 2011 in some American restaurants and bars. This trend soon moved to other cities such as London and Paris. The acidity in the shrub made it a well-suited aperitif in cocktails.
Even companies making bitters have started shrub production now. My favourite would be the Bittermens Hellfire Habanero cocktail shrub.
At Home Club (Delhi) we used to do a few shrub cocktails during our summer menu run. One of the favorites was a Greater Than cocktail with pomegranate shrub, which featured as a finalist for the ‘Bar Wars’ competition.
Another one was a Jameson highball with a pineapple and clove shrub. At Sidecar (Delhi), the team has popularised their infamous ‘Bael’ shrub.
The American Bar at the Savoy created a cocktail, ‘The Seven Springs’, made from Mezcal, coconut water, basil, coriander and a Savoy cocktail shrub.
Through cold infusion the fruit is steeped in with the sugar and rested for a few days, allowing all the essential oils and flavors mix in. Vinegar is added to it later.
Hot infusion is done by adding the fruit in the vinegar and sugar mix and heating it to extract the flavours. But do not use a high flame as it may caramelise the sugar!
The quick lazy way is the best method for home bartenders who want quick results: just blend everything together! I once did this for a last-minute live session where I created a cucumber and cardamom shrub to go along with a gin cocktail.
Make sure you have precise measurements before starting the process. Know the potential of your fruit beforehand, in terms of how much flavour and sugar content is already present within it.
Use the right type of vinegar (apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, etc.) based on the type of shrub you want to get. And do not combine delicate flavours with strong ones – such as jasmine along with ginger.
Like all trends in the industry, shrubs will fade away, often make a comeback, and go again. But remember that shrubs may be adapted by chefs in their kitchens too, especially in the bakery to create acidic yet fruity flavours.
Pomegranate juice: 100ml
Castor sugar: 50ml
Shiraz wine: 30ml
White vinegar: 30ml
Cocktail: Blooming Collins
Gin (Greater Than): 60ml
Pomegranate shrub: 30ml
Lime juice: 20ml
Orange blossom water: 3 drops
Top up with Sepoy spiced grapefruit tonic.