Of all the things that are both greenery and something else, shrubs stand out as something of an oddity on bar menus as of late. In this case, the shrubs in question aren’t of the quasi-bush variety, but rather a category of trendy, vinegar-based drink concoctions.
Thanks to the modern obsession with rediscovering and revitalizing all things old, the colonial-era refreshment known as the shrub has begun to make its way back into the cultural consciousness. Also known as drinking vinegars, shrubs are a bittersweet concoction made by mixing fruit, sugar, vinegar, and aromatics. The result is a beverage that can be thought of as the 18th century’s answer to soda.
While the term “shrub” technically refers to the vinegar and fruit mixture itself, the word is often used synonymously with cocktails that utilize shrubs as their base. As a versatile mixer, shrubs are popping up in taverns around Columbus and beyond. While the syrupy and pungent amalgams are a natural match for booze, their acidity and tartness have made them a popular base for non-alcoholic cocktails.
Trailblazers in the Columbus N/A cocktail scene and shrub revivalists, Franklinton’s Strongwater Food and Spirits offer a seasonally-rotating selection of drinks in which booze takes a back seat to fruit-and-herb-infused drinking vinegars.
“Cocktail culture has become so large, and it’s exciting to see what different people are coming up with,” explains Strongwater general manager Lauren Conrath. “People are doing some really innovative things, so I think the next step is asking why are we only applying this philosophy to alcoholic beverages?”
Strongwater’s shrub program is the undertaking of bartender Amina Cochran, who crafts the bar’s vinegar-infused syrups to match the flavors and available ingredients unique to each season.
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“It’s a good option for a non-alcoholic cocktail, because it has that vinegary bite, where if you’re wanting to have a drink you still get that, without the alcohol,” Cochran said of her creations.
Strongwater is joined in shrub appreciation by The Crest on Parsons Avenue, where shrubs show up as an ingredient in the locally-minded gastropub’s signature cocktail offerings. The Crest’s Fall Flute cocktail pairs a tart apple shrub with Absolut vodka, allspice dram, lemon, and cava.
In the time that shrubs were first popularized, popping over to the corner store for a cold, sugary beverage was simply not an option. Keeping food fresh would have been a constant battle, and finding ways to preserve whatever was available was a necessity. The vinegar in a shrub not only offers flavor, but extends the shelf-life of the syrup used to make the drink. Shrubs are shelf-stable, requiring no refrigeration to maintain their freshness. When properly stored, they can last for as long as a year.
While the health-enhancing claims swirling around apple cider vinegar (the type most commonly used in shrub making) range from dubious to absurd, drinking the stuff in small doses certainly shouldn’t harm most people. Though the science supporting vinegar remedies is shaky at best, the fact remains that apple cider vinegar is a potent preservative and has been used for its antibacterial properties for ages. Still, if you’re looking for a cure-all health elixir, shrubs probably aren’t it—vinegar aside, these things contain a ton of sugar.
They may not be the cure for what ails you, but shrubs are a novel and amusing alternative to boring old commercially-available sodas, whether by themselves or mixed with your go-to liquor.