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Why Vinegar Is the Secret Weapon Ingredient Every At-Home Cocktail Kit Needs

Trust us on this one.

Cocktail shrubs and vodka Photo: courtesy Agnes/Adobe Stock

Shrubs need a new PR strategy.

When you hear the word “shrub,” you’re probably thinking of desert flora, or the kind of thing God would set alight so he could catch up with Moses. But I’m talking about cocktail shrubs, otherwise known as “drinking vinegars,” two names which are, I freely admit, interchangeably unappealing.

The cocktail community has been trying to spread the word about shrubs for some 15 years, but all too often it’s expository, not persuasive. “Put vinegar in your drinks,” they say, as if the reason for doing so is self-evident. But I realize it’s not, so I’m here to persuade you.

How about a Silicon Valley-style pitch:

What if I told you that there was one ingredient that not only made some of the most refreshing and delicious cocktails you’ve ever had, but that it was cheap, and easy, and it literally never spoiled and you probably already own it? Would you want to know more?

Shrubs as we know them were invented in Colonial times as a way to preserve fruit in a pre-refrigeration world. If you had a big harvest of raspberries, say, you’d eat some and sell some, but what do you do with the rest? You make a shrub. Vinegar is terrific at absorbing the flavor and character of produce, so you can enjoy those raspberries well into the winter. You take the extra fruit, soak it in vinegar for a few days, add sugar to balance, and friends, you’ve got yourselves a shrub.

Here are five reasons to drink shrubs this summer:

  1. They share one of alcohol’s most agreeable characteristics, which is that they never ever go bad. Vinegar is inherently antimicrobial, so it’ll never mold or ferment. It actually gets better as it ages, integrating and mellowing some of its sharper edges.
  2. It’s absurdly easy. Take some fruit, chop it up finely or coarsely or not at all because it doesn’t really matter, add vinegar and lemon juice (more on this below) and let it sit for three days. Then filter out the fruit, stir in some sugar, and it’s done. Putting it together takes about 10 minutes all told.
  3. It’s inexpensive. Vinegar is cheap, sugar is cheap, and the fruit you use is whatever you have around.
  4. It prevents waste. If you couldn’t manage to finish the 8 lbs. of strawberries you optimistically bought at Costco before they go bad, make a shrub. Preventing waste is literally why shrubs were invented.
  5. Finally—and most crucially here—it’s delicious. Shrubs are amazing. They have the core refreshment of your classic sours (Margaritas, Daiquiris, etc) but an added complexity, a little extra twang that reminds me of a Berliner Weisse or a better Kombucha.

Almost all shrub recipes you find on the internet (and there are thousands) will follow the same guidelines: equal parts sugar, fruit and vinegar. They’re pretty much all good, but I would adjust them: I don’t want the vinegar to dominate the drink, so I split it in half with lemon juice. I do this for every shrub I make. That way, it’s still in balance, but less intense and more refreshing.

And there are so many combinations worth exploring: Pineapple with jalapeño, strawberry and basil, blueberry meets thyme, peach joins ginger… go nuts. The world is your oyster.

mulberry cocktail shrub

A drinking vinegar made with mulberries.  Photo: courtesy Ricka Kinamoto/Adobe Stock

Basic Shrub Recipe

  • 8 oz fruit or vegetable
  • 8 oz white sugar
  • 4 oz lemon juice
  • 4 oz vinegar (use something that compliments the fruit but not too sweet like balsamic—when in doubt, use Apple Cider Vinegar)
  • 1 oz herbs or spices (optional, but advised. Adds complexity.)

Roughly chop or mash fruit. Add fruit and herbs to lemon juice and vinegar, cover, and let sit for 3 days in a cool, dark place (fridge works but isn’t strictly necessary, just make sure fruit floating above liquid doesn’t rot). Then strain out solids, stir in sugar until it dissolves and you’re good to go. Yields around 12 oz.

Summer Crush

  • 1.5 oz vodka, gin or tequila (or no booze at all, for a tasty and fresh N/A alternative)
  • 1 oz raspberry/mint/champagne vinegar shrub
  • 6 oz soda water

Combine in a tall glass over ice. Garnish with a mint sprig or lime wedge or just a self-satisfied reflection on how easy that all was to put together.


Every week bartender Jason O’Bryan mixes his up his favorite drinks for you. Check out his past cocktail recipes.

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