Aspen Times Weekly: Taming of the Shrub

by Amanda Rae


Meat & Cheese Restaurant

and Farm Shop

317 E. Hopkins Ave.

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SITTING at the bar at Meat & Cheese a few weeks ago, I overhear bartender Matt Lanning ask chef David Wang a question: Have you ever used shrubs in your cooking?

“Oh, yeah, rosemary,” Wang replies. I can’t help but burst out laughing. “No,” Lanning says. “Vinegar.”

I’m sipping one of Lanning’s signature cocktails, The Shrubbery, which combines house-infused pear-ginger gin with Chinese celery drinking vinegar. It’s an odd-sounding combo — what the heck is Chinese celery, and do I really want vinegar in my drink? — but addictively thirst-quenching in our frigid, dry climate.

All the rage in bar programs from Brooklyn to the Bay Area, shrubs, also known as drinking vinegars, have made a spirited resurgence in recent years. Originally, shrubs — fruit (or vegetables) steeped in sugar and blended with vinegar —allowed folks to preserve harvest during winter months.

“It was a function of being able to get vitamin C without having fresh fruit,” says Lanning, echoing author Michael Dietsch, who wrote an entire book on the subject in 2014, “Shrubs: An Old Fashioned Drink for Modern Times.” “At the end of the summer you have this huge harvest, but [no] refrigeration, so they took the fruit and put it in vinegar to preserve it all winter to get some of the nutritional benefits, sweetness, and flavor.”

Lanning has made his own shrubs for cocktails before. “But seeing this packaged product was pretty cool,” says Lanning of Pok Pok Som Drinking Vinegar, sold at the Meat & Cheese Farm Shop adjacent to the restaurant. Problem was, nobody was buying the stuff, because they didn’t know what to do with it. Flavors as esoteric as Chinese celery, Thai basil, and tamarind, especially.

“I’ll refer to apple cider vinegar,” Lanning explains. “I drink Bragg’s Apple Cider Vinegar with water. It’s the best cure for hiccups. And for heartburn: It doesn’t seem like it would make sense that you would put acid on top of acid, but it works. It’s better than Tums and way better for you.”

Bartenders looking to add zing to beverages while staying seasonal, then, are now using shrubs and vinegars. “We don’t like to buy Mexican or Colombian fruits —except for lemons and limes, which we have to have,” Lanning says. “We don’t do any berries. In The Shrubbery we use Asian pear in the infusion and garnish. In the fall we used local pears.”

Drinking vinegar dates to 5,000 B.C., when Babylonians produced wine from date palm fruit, which eventually soured. In ancient times, vinegar helped purify unsafe drinking water and was used as a folk remedy for colds and coughs. Back then, sherbet was a mixture of acidulated fruit juice, water, and herbs — the first sodas for teetotaling Muslims. (The word shrub derives from the Arabic word for beverage, sharab.)

In the 17th century, shrubs sailed to the Western world aboard ships, where they were mixed with rum or brandy to help relieve sailors of scurvy — a vitamin C deficiency. During Prohibition, alcohol-free shrubs helped quench a thirst for booze. Then came home refrigeration and soda fountains, which nearly wiped out shrubs altogether.

Still, they survived in certain parts of the United States. Tait Farm Foods in Pennsylvania has been making nonalcoholic shrubs since the late 1980s. A Wall Street Journal article in 2004, however, is credited with sparking our country’s modern-day shrub revival, notes Dietsch, who noticed the trend during the 2011 Tales of the Cocktail bartending convocation in New Orleans.

In cocktail culture, shrubs and herbal vinegars complement craft spirits by enhancing, rather than masking, flavors (see “Acid Trip,” opposite page), without much added sugar. They’re easy to make, too. Dietsch’s standard recipe: Combine two parts fruit (or vegetable) to one part sugar; steep at least overnight; strain; add one part vinegar; refrigerate for months.

Shrubs and drinking vinegars balance sweetness with acidity. At the new Monarch, head bartender Keith Goode concocts the Golden Monarch: a blend of mango-infused vinegar with gin from Golden Moon Distillery in Golden, Colo., (down the street, chef Barry Dobesh’s other restaurant, Abejas).

“It’s more an infusion than a shrub — normally there is fruit puréed into a shrub,” explains Goode, who also features fig-steeped balsamic vinegar on his cocktail list at The Wild Fig, another CP Group restaurant. Even without booze, the sweet-tart vinegars makes intriguing mocktails when mixed with soda, fresh-pressed juice, or water. (The Monarch offers a killer house-made tonic water.)

Though popular behind the bar, shrubs have been slower to make their way into the kitchen. One reason: the fruit-infused elixirs brimming with beneficial bacteria and essential vitamins lose potency when heated.

“You rarely see vinegars in a cooked application,” chef Wang explains. “It’s used in finishing, as a dipping sauce, or for straight drinking.” He adds that they are more popular in Eastern styles of cooking, too.

While noted as remedy for digestive health and skin issues, chef Martin Oswald of Pyramid Bistro & Catering cautions against giving vinegar too much credit.

“The effects you can get from a proper diet are huge — there’s no apple cider that can change that,” Oswald says. “You can drink all the apple cider or shrub or whatever you wanna name it, but your cholesterol, your diabetes, your weight is not gonna change.”

Still, Oswald uses reductions of apple cider-, pomegranate-, and balsamic vinegar as flavor enhancers in his plant-based dishes. Truth is: zingy, low-sugar syrups are universally appealing.

After making her first shrub from fresh pineapple, coconut sugar, and apple cider vinegar, Amanda Rae is hooked.

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