A sweet-and-sour throwback to 1776, shrubs are the latest cocktail sensation.
Modern mixologist: Caterina Mirabelli at Oakland's District.
Ask bar manager Jay Crabb at Berkeley’s BUILD Pizzeria what’s in his off-menu cock-tail the Amalfi Coast, and he’ll say: St. George Botanivore gin, Aperol, Barolo Chinato, lemon juice, and house-made grapefruit shrub.
And you say: shrub? How can you fit a leafy, woodsy bush into that mug?
But no. Shrubs—whose name, as does the word “syrup,” probably derives from the Arabic sharab, meaning “beverage” or “wine”—are refreshing fermented syrups made from fresh fruit macerated with sugar and boiled in vinegar. Popular for centuries in Europe and in Colonial America, shrubs are enjoying a renaissance in the booming East Bay cocktail scene.
“Shrubs do two great things,” Crabb says. “They stimulate the appetite, and they’re extremely thirst-quenching. They add a beautiful savory element.”
Caterina Mirabelli, co-owner of District Oakland wine and whiskey lounge, grew up making shrubs with her grandparents on the family farm in Italy.
“We had so many fruit trees, and this was another way of preserving fruit—an alternative to making jam,” Mirabelli remembers, describing how they boiled fruit in vinegar, carefully adding enough sugar to produce “the perfect sweet-and-sour flavor, kind of like kombucha.” At District, she’s planning a holiday cocktail comprising Four Roses bourbon, lemon peel, and house-made ginger shrub.
“Shrubs bring a brightness to cocktails that you can’t find anywhere else,” says Eric Grenier, bar manager at Emeryville’s Honor Kitchen & Cocktails, where he recently created a punch containing white-fig shrub made with aged sherry vinegar. Club soda-shrub mixtures are popular nonalcoholic “mocktails” at Honor, too.
“Choosing the freshest fruits possible”—as Grenier does with frequent visits to the Grand Lake and Jack London Square farmers markets—“makes shrubs that much brighter.”
When bar manager Nat Harry offered a savory cocktail containing mezcal, Chartreuse and house-made celery shrub at Berkeley’s Revival Bar + Kitchen last year, “customers were like, ‘Ewww, it’s vinegar. Gross!’ Nobody knew what a shrub was. They were freaked out by the whole idea. I had to talk people into trying it,” he says, by explaining that shrubs are classic aperitifs of which cocktails contain just a dash.
“It’s not a total brinefest,” Harry laughs.
“Fermented and pickled foods provide a specific back-of-the-palate balancing point,” says Gather’s bar manager Alex Conde. “Against the roundness of syrups, gommes, and certain sweetening agents, the vinegar in shrubs provides you with this angular, knifelike balancing point that lets you get even more extreme with your sugars.”
In a cocktail that Conde created for Gather called Boys Don’t Cry, house-made boysenberry-balsamic shrub joins Swedish punch, Oloroso sherry, and plum-infused bourbon. Another, the Victory and Brightness, features quinine, vermouth, citrus juice, St. George Terroir gin, jalapeño, and bottled grapefruit shrub from Atlanta-based Shrub & Company.
“Campari, amaro, quinine: Bitter flavors have always been a staple in Europe. And California is the produce capital of the New World. Having all those Old World bitter flavors and all this New World produce gives us so much incredible stuff to play with. I feel that it’s my responsibility as a California bartender to put them together,” Conde says. “New York and Chicago, eat your hearts out.”