Let’s get right to it, a fruit shrub is basically an equal mixture of fresh fruit, sugar and vinegar. Yes vinegar. But shrubs are better than you might think (actually quite tasty) and were a very popular way to preserve fruit in the days before refrigeration. And rather than tasting of vinegar, shrubs are sweet and very tangy. The vinegar acts as a flavor enhancer, somewhat like salt on savory foods- you don’t know it’s there, but everything tastes better. A cool trick, and one that works with most summer fruits. And if you like cocktails or home-made soda, you should know about shrubs. But first a little “back story”…
Last week Carolyn and I traveled to wine country and then, ironically, started drinking cocktails. Happily both Napa and Sonoma have a number of restaurants and bars that feature world-class drinks, as well as excellent wine lists. One of the best places we visited was Bar Terra, an extension of the very well-regarded Terra in St. Helena. Bar Terra features a less formal and more “bar-driven” menu of smaller plates, wine and hand-crafted cocktails in a very welcoming atmosphere. The food and service were very good, but we did go for the drinks, and Bar Terra did not disappoint.
The best cocktail we had at Bar Terra (and our entire trip) was a creation that is a riff on the Last Word, that just happens to have apricot shrub. If you are unfamiliar with the Last Word it is a roughly equal combination of gin, lime juice, maraschino liqueur and green Chartreuse. It sounds like a train wreck, but the Last Word is real alchemy, all the flavors blend into a well-balanced, refreshing cocktail. And the recipe invites mixologist to play around. We often ask good bartenders to make a Last Word variant, and the team at Bar Terra struck gold. Their version of the Last Word included dry gin, apricot shrub, maraschino liqueur and yellow Chartreuse (and maybe a touch of lemon juice). The drink was an absolute winner with the apricot shrub supplying both sweetness and tang, the gin and Chartreuse herbal notes and the maraschino liqueur some nutty flavors. And if you didn’t know a shrub has vinegar, you would never place the flavor, you would just notice a lovely, palate-pleasing “zing”. You can’t wait for another sip. We didn’t get a name for the cocktail, but we have an adapted recipe below, and in honor of Bar Terra we will call it the Last Apricot On Earth.
We’ve known about fruit shrubs for some time, as they are popular in cocktail circles, but the cocktail at Bar Terra finally motivated us to make shrubs at home. And as we are near the end of apricot season, and there are Blenheim apricots available, we chose to make a “cold shrub” of the apricots before they were gone. Making the shrub is very easy. Simply mash and then macerate equal parts fruit and sugar, let a syrup form for a few days in the fridge and then strain and add an equal part of cider vinegar and mix. You can try the shrub immediately and it will be tasty, but it will “mature” and the flavors develop more with a few days / weeks. And it is not a vinegar, more like a preserved syrup. If you want a full breakdown on fruit shrubs Michael Dietsch of Serious Eats has a good article here.