Bottle – then raise a glass to – summer’s bounty with a variety of concentrated syrups made from fruit, sugar and vinegar.
The mild acid might not immediately come to mind when contemplating summer sips. After all, it’s what wine tastes like when it takes a turn for the worse.
But shrubs, or drinking vinegars, trace their palatability back to ancient Romans and Babylonians. Derived from the Arabic word sharâb meaning “to drink,” shrubs became fashionable in 17th- and 18th-century England as a way to preserve quick-spoiling fruit, and the trend carried over to colonial America.
The acidic beverages largely disappeared with the introduction of home refrigeration and the industrialization of sodas early in the last century.
Mixed with seltzer as well as alcohol, sweetened drinking vinegars have been making a comeback. While it’s still difficult to find them on libations menus in Spokane, shrubs are fairly simple to make and enjoy at home.
The fruit-infused vinegar adds complexity and deeper flavor to drinks, offering an alternative to mainstream sodas or pre-made cocktail mixers full of high-fructose corn syrup.
Refreshingly fruity with a tart and tangy zing, they capture the essence of the fruit with which they are made. So it’s best to opt for the sweetest, most ripe specimens, starting with rhubarb and strawberries, then moving through the rest of the season’s abundance of berries and stone fruits.
This classic colonial concoction provides another way to preserve the taste of summer. Read: You don’t have to make more jam (unless, of course, you want to).
Distilled white vinegar may be used, but many find its taste too sharp. The tang will mellow over time. But shrubs made from red or white wine, Champagne or apple cider vinegars might be better options for most palates.
“The quality will make a difference in the flavor,” said 51-year-old Bobbie Gunkel, who’s been experimenting with drinking vinegars since last summer. Ever since, when she craves carbonation, she said she has been turning to shrubs. “They’re amazing, and they’re actually healthier than drinking a bunch of sugar.”
Processing techniques vary. Some mixologists macerate the fruit with sugar, then extract juice from the solids and add vinegar to taste. Others infuse vinegar with the fruit, then strain the solids and add sugar to taste. Some simmer the syrup; others opt for an entirely unheated process.
It’s fun to experiment, coming up with flavor combinations, methods and recipes.
Herbs and spices – like lavender, mint, cardamom, cinnamon, lemon verbena, vanilla, ginger, peppercorns, cloves, citrus zest, bay leaves, basil, tarragon and rosewater – can be used to add depth.
If you’re short on time or fruit, specialty shops, like Spokane’s Oil & Vinegar at River Park Square, sell flavored vinegars –like hibiscus, huckleberry, cranberry, passion fruit, mango, cherry almond, and elderflower, apple and lime – that can also be used to make flavored sodas or adult beverages.
“When you say vinegar, people think of white distilled vinegar. But there’s a whole world of vinegars out there,” said Gunkel, who owns the Spokane and Bellevue Oil & Vinegar shops.
The Netherlands-based gourmet foods franchise, founded in 1999, has more than 70 stores in nine countries. Gunkel, who once worked as a cook in the U.S. Army, bought the Spokane store two years ago. She purchased the Bellevue store last fall.
“People make a funny face” when they first hear about shrubs, she said. “Once they try them they’re amazed at how good they taste.”
Strawberry Drinking Vinegar
This recipe is fairly simple and doesn’t require a lot of time. Some shrubs call for days, even weeks, of sitting in the fridge, for mellowing out and deepening the flavor. I didn’t want to wait that long. It was a hot summer night, and I didn’t have a fan.
Fizzy and slightly sweet with just a little bit of a tangy-tart kick, this strawberry shrub proved to be refreshing. I made it with sugar and apple cider vinegar (the recipe notes you can also use honey or red wine vinegar) then mixed it with white rum, soda water and ice. It didn’t last long. Next time, I’m making a double batch.
1 cup strawberries, hulled and cut into chunks
1/2 cup sugar (or honey)
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup plus another couple of tablespoons to taste good apple cider vinegar or red wine vinegar
Ice cubes and soda water
Fennel, basil or mint sprigs to garnish
Blend the strawberries into a purée using a blender or food processor. Then, strain them into a bowl, pressing on the solids in the strainer to get all of the smooth puree out.
In a small saucepan combine the sugar and water and bring to a boil, stirring until all the sugar dissolves. Simmer on low for 1 to 2 minutes, then remove from the heat. Allow to cool to room temperature.
Stir together the syrup and the strawberry puree. Stir in 1/4 cup of vinegar, taste and add more to taste. Put in a covered container and refrigerate until you want to use it. It will keep for at least a couple of weeks in the fridge.
To make a drink, put 1 to 2 ounces of the fruit-vinegar in a glass, add a couple of ice cubes, then top it off with cold seltzer water. This is all about adjusting the ratios to your own taste. You can make the drink stronger or weaker to suit your mood. You can also use the base for cocktails.
Garnish the drinks with a sprig of herb.
Yield: About 1 ½ cups of syrup
Blueberry (or Raspberry) Shrub
From “Fruitful” by Brian Nicholson and Sarah Huck
3 mint leaves
2 to 3 tablespoons blueberry or raspberry vinegar (See recipe below)
1 tablespoon honey, plus more as needed
Seltzer, as needed
Fill a large iced tea glass with ice and mint. Stir in the vinegar and honey, and top off with seltzer. Taste the drink and add more vinegar and honey, if necessary. Serve immediately.
Yield: 1 serving
From “Fruitful” by Brian Nicholson and Sarah Huck
2 1/2 cups ripe berries (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries or strawberries)
2 cups white wine vinegar or distilled white vinegar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
Place the berries in a nonreactive pot and crush them lightly with a potato masher. Place the pot over medium-high heat and stir in the vinegar and sugar; bring the mixture to a boil and simmer just until the sugar dissolves, about 2 minutes.
Pour the hot mixture into a sterilized quart jar. Cover tightly with a nonreactive lid or wrap the opening with plastic wrap and screw the lid tightly on top. Shake well, and then place the jar in a cool, dark pantry to rest for at least 3 days and up to 1 week. Strain the vinegar through a fine-mesh sieve into a freshly sterilized pint jar. Store the vinegar in a cool, dark place. Refrigerate after opening.
Yield: 2 cups
Raspberry Vinegar Aperitif
From Oil & Vinegar
1/4 cup raspberry vinegar (Oil & Vinegar recommends its Raspberry Vinegar Balsam)
1 cup sparkling spring water
Crushed ice cubes
Wash the raspberries gently. Mash the raspberries with a fork (save 4 to garnish the glasses). Mix in a measuring cup the raspberry pulp with the raspberry vinegar. Add the sparkling water and distribute the liquid over four cocktail glasses. Garnish the glass with a raspberry. Serve immediately.
French Fruit Bowl Summer Cocktail
From Oil & Vinegar
1/2 cup strawberries
1/2 cup red raspberries
6 fresh mint leaves
2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar (Oil & Vinegar recommends its Marc de Champagne vinegar)
1 tablespoon strawberry vinegar
3 teaspoons orange blossom honey
2 cups sparkling white wine
2 cups sparkling water with lemon flavor
Cut the strawberries in half, dice the mango and apples and slice the mint leaves into small strips. Put the sliced fruit and mint in a punch bowl or pitcher. Add the Champagne vinegar, strawberry vinegar and honey. Pour the chilled sparkling wine and let it stand one hour, then pour the sparkling water on and mix gently.
Note: For a nonalcoholic punch replace the wine with sparkling mineral water.
From Oil & Vinegar
1 teaspoon cranberry vinegar
1/2 cup Prosecco
Mix both ingredients. Garnish with fresh cranberries (optional). Serve in a martini glass or Champagne flute.
For a rhubarb shrub recipe from Sylvia Fountaine of Feasting at Home, published in the Spokesman-Review Food section on May 21, visit www.spokesman.com/ stories/2014/may/21/ rosy-stalk-market/ .
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