After all of the holidays, travel, and events of the past few months, I am taking around six weeks off the booze, which is not an easy thing for me to do. During the early days of covid I think a lot of us developed a habit in which the only way to turn off work at the end of the day was to have a cocktail. There was something about the ceremony of making a drink that allowed us to mentally shift gears into relaxation mode. Being self-employed, and thus able to convince myself that I ought to be working 24/7, that habit has persisted, making these breaks from alcohol more necessary, but also more difficult. In practice, however, I have found that a mocktail or a non-alcoholic beer does exactly the same thing for my brain. The ceremony still flips that internal switch and I am able to turn off work for a while. So, here’s my favorite way to make mocktails: shrub syrups.
Shrubs are actually an old fashioned way to preserve fruit into the winter months. Fruits are mashed with sugar and vinegar and allowed to steep for a while, then the syrup is strained and bottled. Thus prepared, the syrups are quite stable and allowed folks to enjoy the flavor of summer fruits when they would not otherwise be accessible. In these absurdly luxurious modern times in which we live, we are no longer beholden to seasonality when it comes to what we eat, but these vinegar syrups are still a fantastic way to flavor a drink.
Now, you might be questioning my taste right now, and I wouldn’t blame you for it. When I first heard about shrub syrups I could not possibly imagine that they would taste good. In what world would I want to add vinegar to my cocktails? Then I made a few, and boy was I wrong.
With strawberries or raspberries, the resulting shrub syrup just makes a perfectly balanced cocktail. The sweetness and fruit come through strong, and the vinegar is hardly noticeable except that it prevents the cocktail from tasting too sweet. They’re really excellent stuff.
Some fruits do not lend themselves quite as well and will produce a shrub with a noticeable vinegar flavor, though the vinegar is still mild and results in a cocktail that tastes a touch like kombucha. In my experience, the softer fruits produce the best results, though I have only tried around half a dozen varieties. And I have made them all according to this system. I would be curious to find out if the firmer fruits simply need more time to steep.
1 cup fruit
1 cup sugar
1 cup apple cider vinegar
Mash the fruit well and add it to a large jar. Pour in 1 cup sugar and 1 cup apple cider vinegar. You can experiment with other vinegars here, but I find apple cider to be the most reliable. Put the top on the jar and shake it until the sugar is dissolved. Set the jar on a shelf for ~36 hours.
After the mixture has aged at room temperature for 36 hours, strain out all solids, put the syrup in a fresh jar, and store that in the fridge. It should last a long time (if you don’t drink it all before then).
1 oz. Shrub Syrup
2 oz. Spirit of choice (optional)
A dash of citrus juice (optional)
Club Soda to taste
Just stir it all together over ice and enjoy.
There are a lot of ways to go with a shrub cocktail. Blackberry shrub, tequila, and lime is excellent. Raspberry shrub and vodka is great on its own, but excellent with a splash of lemon. And, of course, the cocktail (mocktail, actually) that showed up on my instagram today, a strawberry basil mojito, is also excellent. The world is your oyster. The shrub performs in a cocktail as both the sweetener and the acid, though sometimes a little extra acid is nice.
Strawberry Basil Shrub Mojito:
1 oz. strawberry shrub
2 oz. white rum (optional)
4-6 basil leaves
Club soda, to taste
Muddle the lime and basil, then pour in the shrub. Add ice, top with soda, and stir.
Garnish with sliced strawberries and basil leaves, if desired.