Wildly Popular Shrub Vinegars Put a Spin on Pittsburgh’s Cocktail Scene
With sweet beverages saturating seasonal cocktail menus around the holidays, those with tastes leaning toward the savory side can easily feel slighted. Shrub vinegar cocktails, readily available year-round, boast a pleasant, acidic, and heat-inducing taste that position themselves as a definite solution. A quickly growing trend among local bartenders, drinking vinegars — a fruit-, vegetable-, herb-, or spice-infused syrup — are cropping up as welcomed accompaniments to spirits all around town. The end result of combining the mixer with alcohol is known as “shrub.” “It’s a wonderful, strange concoction,” says Tyler Kulp, assistant café manager at East End Food Co-op. The State College native used to make and sell shrub vinegars at Tait Farm, Pennsylvania’s well-known producer of the ingredient. “It almost has an umami taste,” he says. “Shrubs give the cocktail a nice balance because they have a little bit of sweet and a little bit of that vinegary tartness. So, it can really give a whole other level of body and depth to an otherwise simple cocktail, much more so than adding a simple syrup or grenadine.” It seems that bartenders across the city couldn’t agree more, and savor the opportunity to experiment with making their own homemade shrubs. “We get sort of mad scientist behind the bar,” says Jeremy Bustamante, bartender at Salt of the Earth, who appreciates the shrubs’ bold flavor. “It’s a great option for those who prefer savory over sweet. I think that’s kind of the palate of our community.”
So, what initiated the sudden spike in shrubs? Our experts attribute it to a number of reasons, including Pittsburgh’s ever-expanding cocktail culture. Says Kulp, “The cocktail movement is huge right now, and people are really getting into mixology. Shrubs are kind of like bitters, but simpler to make. So, it’s a great project for the home mixologist. You can put pineapple and rosemary together, apples and cinnamon, or any other kind of combination you like. I think that’s the other part of shrub appeal — it’s very versatile.” Bustamante cites the explosion of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in Pittsburgh and people’s desire to preserve the produce they’re unable to use by canning or infusing them into vinegars. Yet, the overriding theme connecting these ideas appears to be a return to past practices, a sentiment Kevin Hermann, executive chef at The Porch at Schenley, echoes as well. “One big thing about me and cooking is using the traditions of how it all began — getting really rudimentary and understanding how to use different products available to you. This [making shrubs] was just another avenue to try to stay true to what good cooking is.”
The origin of shrubs dates back centuries, according to Kulp, and the word itself is derived from the old Arabic word, “sharab,” which translates to “acid fruit drink.” But, shrub as we know it today dates back to colonial times. “It was how the colonists first preserved their fruit before there was refrigeration or freezers,” he says. “They would store their fruit in vinegar, which would keep it through the winter. Then, they would remove the fruit and they were left with this infused vinegar. They called it shrub, and they would add it to brandy, water — whatever they wanted to drink.”
Today, a number of creative ways to use shrub have found their way into the playbooks of local chefs, bartenders, and aficionados. We came across a seemingly endless amount of drinkable ideas, including a shrub vinegar made with raspberries, basil, and balsamic vinegar; red onion shrub vinegar paired with Boyd & Blair Vodka; and shrub vinegar spritzers and seltzers. And, aside from its use as a beverage enhancement, the versatile ingredient also makes a great addition to sauces, glazes, and salad dressings. Regardless of the route that suits you, those who consume the ancient syrup are bound to find it growing on them.
By Liz Petoniak | Photographs by Michael Fornataro | Styling by Samantha Casale
+ Make your own shrub vinegar!
Homemade Shrub Vinegar
- Equal parts fruit, granulated sugar, and vinegar
Tip: Bustamante recommends using overripe fruit that’s juicy but not rotten.
- Macerate the fruit by chopping it up into tiny pieces. Coat with granulated sugar in a bowl and mix.
Tip: Bustamante notes that fruits (and vegetables) with less natural sugar, such as apples, will require more added sugar than sweeter fruits, like plums, to pull out the juices that make the syrup.
- Cover the mixture and let sit for one hour to one day in the refrigerator.
- Once the fruit is drowned in syrup, strain the solids, and combine the liquid with a vinegar of your choice in a clean bottle.
Tip: While distilled vinegar is a common choice, Kulp suggests experimenting with other interesting options, such as apple cider vinegar or balsamic vinegar.
- Mix well, cap, and let the mixture sit at room temperature for at least five days to infuse the vinegar. Up to four weeks is ideal. Check up on the shrub periodically.
Tip: Hermann recommends adjusting the taste of the shrub to your liking prior to mixing it into a cocktail. “You can make the shrubs as sweet or as savory as you would like by adjusting the amount of sugar,” he says.