Add Sour Power To Your Cocktails With Shrubs

Strawberry Sour photo courtesy Shrub District

Strawberry Sour photo courtesy Shrub District

Drinking vinegars use up end-of-season produce and make for mouthwatering sweet-tart drinks.

In the 1700s, American colonists who wanted to preserve the bounty of bumper crops created shrubs. Essentially a mixture of fruit, sugar and vinegar, shrubs were a way to add fruit flavor to drinks and desserts in the colder months when nary a fresh peach or strawberry was to be found. A few years ago bartenders and home cocktailians rediscovered the benefits of shrubs; namely, that they can boost flavor and acidity no matter the season, and perhaps even tout digestive benefits.

“Shrubs as a concept are deceptively simple—just vinegar and produce at the core—making them ripe for creative interpretation and seasonal influence,” says Victoria Ho, brand and product specialist for Pacific Pickle Works in Santa Barbara. “Behind the bar, shrubs are an efficient, cost-effective way to add intense flavor, dimension and vibrancy to a cocktail without diluting the impact of other elements or adding significant prep-time to the ticket.”

They can also be a substitute for fresh citrus, says Don Morton, founder of Shrub District in Washington, D.C., which makes eight varieties of shrubs. “At home, we reach for shrubs when we don’t feel like squeezing a bunch of limes and making a big mess,” he admits. “Or when people drop by unexpectedly and we want a sour but don’t have any fresh citrus.” Added to a classic Margarita or Daiquiri, shrubs provide true-to-life fruit flavor without muddling, seeds or juicing. (If you are using a shrub to completely replace the citrus in a drink, Ho suggests one crafted with apple cider vinegar, which is less aggressive than distilled white vinegar.)

There are lots of great shrubs on the market - you can even purchase Som, popularized at Pok Pok restaurants - but they're also fairly easy to make at home. A basic beginner recipe is sugar, fruit and vinegar in equal ratios. Start by macerating the fruit and sugar for a day or so until the former breaks down and you end up with a thick syrup. Then mix in the vinegar, strain out the fruit and bottle. Over the next few weeks, you’ll notice that the overly sour flavor mellows, and you end up with an enticing sweet and tangy ingredient.

photo via Groupon

photo via Groupon

To get started with them in classic strained cocktails, Ho recommends 1 part shrub to 4 parts spirits, 1 part liqueur and a dash of bitters. If you are using a savory shrub, a touch of simple syrup, agave or honey can round things out, she says. For a cocktail on the rocks, she recommends 1 part shrub, 1 part juice or freshly-squeezed citrus, 2 parts spirit, a muddle of a complimentary fruit or herb and a splash of soda.

Morton points out there are only truly a few basic cocktail structures, meaning that once you master the ratios, the riffs are endless. For a perfect shrub-based punch for eight in a matter of seconds, mix 8 oz. of Shrub District with 8 oz. spirits, 8 oz. liqueur, wine or vermouth and 8 oz. water, coconut water, ice tea or seltzer, in a pitcher or large Bell jar filled with ice.

When deciding what to mix a shrub with, keep the fruit flavor in mind, he says. “Our Pineapple Allspice works well with rye and rum but clashes with gin,” he admits. “Conversely, our Just Grapefruit works well with Tequila, gin and vodka but is hard to pair with whiskey.” Lime pretty much cozies up to anything.

Ho also shares some advice when mixing with shrubs, adding that ones crafted from stone fruit or jammy figs are perfect with brown spirits, while vodka or gin lets berries and botanical shrubs shine. Just about every variety of crushable paired with bubbles from soda and ginger ale to sparkling wine and kombucha. “The combination of pucker tartness and effervescence is undeniably refreshing,” she notes. “And cocktails spiked with shrubs often do well with a dash of bitters to round out the balance of sour-sweet-salty-bitter.” Pacific Pickle Works Michelada Shrub, crafted with apple cider vinegar, a range of botanicals, lime and salt, is a one-step mixer for the savory Mexican brunch drink. Just add one to two ounces of it to a chilled 12 oz. bottle of beer.

Quaker City Shrubs, made with shrubs and mixed with malt beverage, are both a ready-to-drink beverage in a can and a cool cocktail ingredient. They currently come in three flavors--blackberry, grapefruit and apple--which go best with gin, tequila and bourbon, respectively. “All are light and dry enough to let spirits shine, complementing their flavors without overpowering,” says Steve Grasse, Founder of Quaker City Mercantile and creator of Quaker City Shrubs. In drinks, he believes they work best in simple classics with two to three ingredients. Use one to replace the tonic or soda in a G&T or Whiskey and Cola, or in any bubbly drink like a French 75 or Mimosa. The grapefruit can also stand in for grapefruit soda in a Paloma.

And while the benefits of shrubs to the digestive system may be more anecdotal than anything, Morton points out that many cultures drinks acids before or with meals, as well as herbal tinctures or liqueurs afterwards to improve digestion. “Though the science is not yet clear on its impact, humans have been drinking vinegar since before Roman times when soldiers received it as rations to drink with water,” he notes. “That being said, we make and drink shrubs because we like how they taste, and that’s the most important thing when making a great cocktail.”

Recipes with mixers

photo courtesy Pacific Pickle Works

photo courtesy Pacific Pickle Works

Pacific Coast Summer, a Michelada remix

Recipe courtesy of Pacific Pickle Works

This crushable stunner showcases the best of Southern California's sun-soaked summer: fragrant lemon basil, juicy heirloom tomatoes, the fine herbaceous gin of Santa Barbara based Cutler's Artisan Spirits and their Michelada Shrub. It’s available at select retailers in Northern California and Los Angeles and online at and

  • 1 ½ oz. Cutler’s Gin (or other dry gin, for ginspiration, check out the winners of the 2018 NY International Spirits Competition)

  • ½ oz. Pacific Pickle Works Michelada Shrub

  • ¾ oz. fino sherry

  • ¼ oz. lemon juice

  • 2 heirloom tomato slices, one reserved for garnish

  • 2 lemon basil leaves, one reserved for garnish

In a glass, muddle a tomato slice and a lemon basil leaf. Add the gin, shrub and sherry, add ice and shake until well-chilled. Strain the contents into a salt-rimmed glass and garnish with a slice of tomato and lemon basil leaf.

Strawberry Sour

Recipe courtesy of Shrub District

Shrub District shrubs are available in DC, Maryland and Delaware, at select retailers across the country and online at

  • 1 ½ oz. vodka

  • 1 oz. Shrub District Strawberry Dill Shrub

  • ½ oz. dry vermouth

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker, add ice and shake until chilled. Strain into a coupe.

Quaker City Blackberry Shrub Fizz

Recipe courtesy of Quaker City

Quaker City Shrubs are available in PA, NY and DE with plans to expand to many more markets in the coming months.

  • 4 oz. Quaker City Blackberry Shrub

  • 1 ½ oz. gin or whiskey

  • ½ oz. lemon juice

  • Basil leaves

Lemon wheel, for garnish

In a glass over ice, combine the gin or whiskey and lemon juice. Smack a few leaves of basil between your palms and drop into glass. Garnish with a lemon wheel.

For further reading on shrub history (it's actually pretty interesting!) and cocktail recipes made with homemade shrubs, check out Shrubs, by Michael Dietsch. 

photo courtesy Quaker City Shrubs

photo courtesy Quaker City Shrubs