Many of us 20- to 30-somethings grew up on sour-packed candies. Sour was simply all the rage in the world of candy during the ‘90s. Lemonheads, sure, also but Sour Patch Kids, Sour Skittles, and whoa boy, who can forget the singe-your-tongue-off War Heads.
While we eventually grew up and moved on from the candy phase, the love of all things sour seems to be still engrained inside us, which is perhaps why we’re currently experiencing a wave of sour trends in the foodie world. Kombucha took storm over health food stores over the last few years, and just recently sour ale has become the new it beer. And lately, just popping up around Los Angeles restaurants, we’re being exposed to the most recent sour trend: shrubs.
Shrubs are basically drinking vinegars. Made from fruits, sugar, and some form of vinegar, they are acidic drinks typically packed with a mouth-puckering sourness. They’re said to date back to around the 18th century (on Wikipedia there’s some talk of them being an old Middle Eastern sherbet?) and were used in Colonial America as a means of preserving fruits and vegetables through the harsh winter season.
Shrubs were used as cooling tonics back then, and eventually people got wise to adding spirits like gin or rum to the drinks. These drinking vinegars pretty much fell out of popularity in America until quite recently, as our current mixologists today are on a kick to bring back old-timey classics and reinvent Americana recipes.
Today in Los Angeles, you can seek out any number of bars and restaurants serving up in-house prepared shrub drinks that vary with the seasons and feature local ingredients. Our city’s biggest names for finding the tonics are currently Bäco Mercat and Drago Centro.
Bäco Mercat is constantly rotating in seasonal shrub-based cocktails with bold, garden-inspired ingredients. This spring, the drink menu features Gin Pop! (which contains a ginger shrub), Inca Punch (which contains a chichi morada shrub), and E.G. & T. (which contains a celery seed shrub).
At Drago Centro the drinks are just as seasonal and feature a myriad of complex ingredient combinations you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. Right now, the Night and the City cocktail is made with gin, mushroom bitters, black pepper and squid ink syrup, horseradish, and an heirloom tomato shrub.
If you’re more of the DIY-type, Serious Eats has a great tutorial on making your own shrubs from writer Michael Dietsch that’s highly worth checking out.
You can drink a homemade shrub in cocktails, yes, but you can also reduce the liquid down into a syrupy gastrique. Drizzle it over ice cream, roasted meats, and anything that you want to finish off with a dose of sweet-tart flavor.