If you’ve ever looked closely at the cocktail bar you’re sitting at, you’ve probably noticed an assortment of small bottles—some filled with syrups, others filled with fruit or herbal infusions—near the garnishes, glass-rim seasonings, and bitters, or in the cooler. These are simple syrups and cocktail shrubs.
Earlier this year we talked about the obsession with the latest kitchen It girl (vinegar), but we didn’t dive into the different ways it can be utilized outside of salad dressings and drizzles. When mixed with other ingredients like fruit juices, spices, and herbs, it can then become a drinking vinegar—a sweetened, vinegar-based syrup that, linguistically, holds a close tie to the Arabic word sharab, which means “to drink.”
This concoction can be used in cocktails to deepen flavors, replace citrus juice, or add an acidic punch. It can also be mixed with non-alcoholic beverages—like coffee, soda water, or tonic—to create a no- or low-ABV drink alternative that’s more exciting than a soda water with bitters or Diet Coke. “It’s the same way that a great whiskey adds complexity to a sour that lemonade doesn’t have,” bartender and owner of Kingfisher in Durham, North Carolina, Sean Umstead, told PUNCH in a 2020 article diving into how to rethink the ingredient-turned-drink. “Vinegar contains those fermented, microbial phenolics and flavors that build depth, nuance and intrigue into a drink.” When done correctly, a good shrub achieves the ideal balance between tart and sweet.
Before refrigeration was a thing, shrubs were often made to preserve fruit long pasts its picking. Similar to when pickling vegetables, the presence of combined sugar and acid works to preserve the fruit juice. When it comes to making a shrub, the method can very, but the key is getting the right acid-to-sugar ratio. Too little sugar and it’s essentially pickled, but too much sugar and you’ve created a consistency similar to a simple syrup.
Simple syrups, on the other hand, are typically made with a 1:1 ratio of sugar and water—but can also include fruit reductions and herbal infusions, like rosemary or basil—as an easy to way to add sweetness to a cocktail, coffee drink, or non-alcoholic beverage without having to stir in, or muddle, raw or cane sugar. At the end of the day, the main difference between the two are easy to spot: Shrubs are tart and sweet, simple syrups are just sweet.
If you want to try your hand at making either of two, we’ve added a few of our favorite recipes below.
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Have you made your own cocktail shrub at home? Let us know how it went below!