A Quick & Easy Strawberry Shrub for a Tasty Bourbon Cooler

Recently Mrs Wonk and I were at Seattle’s Staple and Fancy Mercantile for dinner, and I ordered an interesting sounding drink with pisco and strawberry shrub. My first sip was so good that I immediately knew I was going to make my own strawberry shrub, then reverse engineer the recipe and start making my own twists on it. A shrub in this context has nothing to do with big leafy plant in your backyard. Rather, it’s just a mixture of fruit, sugar, and vinegar. Yeah, vinegar. Keep reading – it’s delicious.

Shrubs are one of those trendy ingredients that pop up in a fair number of drinks at craft cocktail bars and restaurants. Pok Pok restaurant in Portland has built a buzz around their “drinking vinegars” which are delicious, but really just shrub with a more descriptive name. A lot of folks are unfamiliar with shrubs, and to be honest, even after a lot of reading about shrubs, I hesitated to dive in and make my own. With several different shrubs and interesting cocktails under my belt now, I can without hesitation recommend making your own shrubs for cocktail experimentation.

Any number of great web sites and blogs out there talk about making shrubs, the history and theory behind them, and interesting recipe variations. What I do well (or so I’m told…) is take vast quantities of information and boil it down to the essentials so a curious person can start building their own understanding. Here’s my “just enough to get started and make your own” introduction to shrubs and using it in a really tasty cocktail.

The making of shrubs goes back hundreds of years and really took off in colonial America. Before the advent of refrigeration, fruit was soaked in vinegar to make it last longer before it spoiled. After straining out the preserved fruit, the remaining liquid was mixed with sugar to form a sort of syrup that’s both tart and sweet.
Shrubs have three great properties that are ideal for making at home:

  • You can make shrub with just about any edible plant that has juice in it — and I’ve even read about shrubs made using vegetables. (Haven’t gone there yet myself…)
  • You can easily mix and match flavors by using multiple fruits or spices. Just pick an interesting flavor combination, and it’s highly likely to work.
  • Shrubs are shelf stable. The fruit juice, sugar, and vinegar over time create a stable ecosystem where mold can’t flourish. I’ve kept shrubs for many months on my countertop and they still taste as good or better than the day I made them.

Today, shrubs are made in a variety of different ways. Some use heat, some don’t, but the essential elements remain the same: Fruit juice extracted from fresh fruit, sugar, and vinegar. There’s somewhat general consensus that “cold process” shrub has the best flavor. In very simple terms, it goes like this:

  1. Obtain equal amount of chopped up fruit, sugar, and vinegar. Thus, if you have one cup of chopped peaches, you’ll need one cup of vinegar and one cup of sugar. Yes – really that much vinegar. Trust me.
  2. Mix the fruit and sugar in a bowl, mason jar, or appropriate non-reactive vessel. Mix well. It may look like a litter box at first, but press on.
  3. Wait a day or so, mixing occasionally. You’ll notice that the originally slightly moist sugar gets wetter and wetter. This is the hydrophilic nature of sugar in action: Sugar loves nearby moisture and draws it in. When mixed together, sugar literally draws out the fruit’s juices. It’s intense to see just how much juice can be extracted from a seemingly sturdy piece of fruit.
  4. Add in the vinegar. Let it sit for another day or two, mixing occasionally.
  5. Strain out the fruit using a fine strainer, cheesecloth, coffee filter, or equivalent. 
  6. Place the liquid in whatever container you’re using to store it. Let it sit for 2 or more days to let it settle. But feel free to take occasional samples.
  7. Sample the leftover fruit. If you like the taste, eat it. If not, chuck it. I happen to like it—especially pineapple.

Expressed in the simplest possible terms, cold process shrub is this:

  • Mix fruit and sugar. Let sit. 
  • Add vinegar. Let sit.
  • Strain. 
  • Enjoy.

Expressed that way, there really shouldn’t be any trepidation about making your first shrub. While fruit and sugar are pretty hard to mess up, the one variable you need to be aware of is vinegar selection. There’s a ton of different types of vinegars out there. In general, distilled white vinegar should be avoided as it can be harsh. Beyond that, use your brain and your taste buds. I’ve successfully used apple cider vinegar, coconut vinegar, and white wine vinegar. Some folks even use balsamic vinegar. If you’re making your first shrub, white wine vinegar is a good, safe (and cost effective) choice.

For the cocktail below, here’s what I used for the batch of shrub:

  • 1 cup chopped strawberries
  • 1 cup white wine vinegar
  • 1 cup sugar

Yields about 2 cups of shrub.

To the cocktail!

Because of the vinegar and sugar content, shrub can be a pretty intense flavor. For that reason, I tend towards 2 part of a base spirit to 1 part of shrub, with assorted accent flavors. While nailing down the pisco/shrub cocktail, it suddenly occurred to me that American whiskeys (bourbon, rye, etc…) can go really well with strawberry. A bit of lime juice pushes things nicely towards the tart side, and then the cassis (blackcurrant liqueur) blends with the strawberry flavor to bring it all home. If you use a less sweet cassis, you might need to add a wee bit of simple syrup to match the sweetness to your particular palate.

Kentucky Strawberry Bush

  • 2 oz bourbon or rye (I use Rittenhouse Bonded Rye)
  • 1 oz strawberry shrub (see recipe above)
  • 0.5 oz lime juice (or lemon in a pinch)
  • 0.5 oz cassis or other sweet berry liqueur

Build in glass, fill with crushed ice. Garnish with mint.

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