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Lateral drinking: shrubs

Categories: Expert guidance

In a new series, food writer, demo chef and Cookbook Club host Angela Clutton shares her tips on making creative drinks with Market produce. This month: shrubs

Image: Orlando Gili

“Why on earth would anyone want to drink vinegar?” You might be thinking, on learning the key ingredient of the acidulated drink known as a ‘shrub’. But on finding out a bit more, having a taste, and starting to immerse yourself in this deliciously sharp world of drinks, you’ll discover it can be the ultimate grown-up soft option, or a wonderful acidic addition to cocktails. If you are just coming round to the idea of drinking vinegars—or you’re yet to be convinced—let this be your guide to taking that second, more appreciative, look.

Shrubs are another name for drinking vinegars. At their most basic, a shrub is a concentrate of fruit—with all its juice, flavour and sweetness brought out—that is combined with the depth and acidity of vinegar. The balance is what does the trick here. A well-made shrub should not taste of vinegar, so much as carry all the best elements of why vinegar has been a culinary essential for thousands of years.

That ubiquity of vinegar makes it no surprise that drinking vinegars have been around for almost as long in one form or another. The Victorians were especially fond of a fruit drinking vinegar, often taking it as a medicinal or health tonic.

A burgeoning buzz
In recent years, there has been a burgeoning buzz of cocktail mixologists bringing shrubs back. That began in the States, particularly New York, and has taken just a smidge longer than lots of shrub fans expected to infiltrate its way into Britain. But it is happening. I see more and more cocktail lists featuring shrubs among ingredients, and more restaurants with a range of shrubs on their menus as soft drinks.

The usefulness of shrubs as a non-alcoholic partner to meals is not to be underestimated. So many soft drinks are too sweet to pleasingly serve with food, but shrubs, with their depth and acidity, become a great no-alcohol option. I write this with Christmas only a whisker away and in the sound knowledge that when the seemingly non-stop alcohol-fest starts to get a bit much, a shrub will be the perfect refresher.

If your head is starting to turn more towards the idea of giving shrubs a go, all you need to make your own is some seasonal fruit (or indeed vegetables—sweet root veg such as carrots, parsnips or beetroots make excellent shrubs too), sugar and vinegar.

Juice and flavour
First step is for the lead ingredient to release as much of its juice and flavour as possible—in my recipe for a plum shrub, that is as simple as sitting the chopped up fruit in sugar for a couple of days. Add cider vinegar, or whatever vinegar you think will go well, and your shrub is done, ready to be bottled. Do be sure to wait at least five days before using, to give time for the flavours to round each other’s edges off and the harsher vinegar notes to be knocked back.

One of the best things about shrub making and drinking is that the fruit (or root) can be whatever is in season. With that in mind your shrub collection evolves just as the food year does too, with herbs and other flavours added into the mix as you would when cooking. You’ll see I use saffron and black peppercorns in my plum shrub recipe, and I often add herbs such as rosemary, thyme or bay to shrub mixes too.

A shrub mixed with sparkling water is the simplest of soft serves. Use them in cocktails to take the place of another acidic ingredient. Or, should you ever find yourself being gifted a not-so-good bottle of sparkling wine, a little shrub in the glass can be the perfect way to give that fizz lift and depth.

Drinking vinegars: the newest-oldest drink in town, that’s definitely worth a proper look.