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Shrubs: An old Fashioned Drink for Modern Times by Michael Dietsch

Posted on by Eric Burke

A few years ago, as I was first exploring the fine world of bitters, infusions, tinctures, cocktails and ultimately flavors, I ran across a reference to a colonial era drink called a shrub. The site described it as: “drinking vinegar.”

The history geek in me teamed up with the cook in me to decide that this was certainly something that we would all be trying to make. I liked vinegar well enough. Normally in something or on something. Sometimes that something was oil with bread sometimes it was green leafy spinach. In either case, vinegar was something that made other things taste good. But these recipes made it seem like the star of the show. What would that be like?

Terrible. That’s what it was like. I’d never been more nervous to try something and yet had those expectations be so completely optimistic. I was sad, but resigned myself to keep an eye on this thing figuring I must have done something wrong.

A couple months ago, I ran across a book by Michael Dietsch called Shrubs: An old Fashioned Drink for Modern Times. I’d been seeing articles in the cocktail blogs I follow mention shrubs. I’d seen small outfits actually sell them. I’d never seen a book solely about them before. I resolved to set my previous shruby experience behind and buy the book. 

I wasn’t disappointed. The book gives you a brief history of shrubs, the evolution of the name, etc. It points out that a shrub was kind of just the name for stuff you drank. Be it alcoholic or not. Then it gives recipes. Oh, so many recipes. Both alcohol and vinegar based recipes. I was in heaven. If there is one thing I like more than a history book it’s a cookbook. And if the final product is drink related, even better. 

I figured the only real way to review this book was to try a couple of the recipes. I went for one alcoholic and one not. For the alcoholic version I chose the Country Gentleman’s Brandy Shrub from page 74. And for the non-alcoholic I tried the Cranberry-Apple Shrub from page 97. Both were basically chosen at random with an eye on ingredients I had in the house.

Country Gentleman’s Brandy Shrub

Nose: Perfumy in a lemon sort of way. Kind of like a gentle furniture polish.

Mouth: Thick. Lemonheads candy is the best way to explain it. Lemony. Sweet, yet tart at the same time. Hint of spice.

Finish: Slight lingering warmth, more lemon.

Thoughts: This is an amazing liqueur and one that not only gives me a use for the handles of brandy my dad keeps giving me, but that might make go buy one if I run out. I may need to make sure this is kept on hand.

Cranberry-Apple Shrub

Nose: Strong Apple Cider Vinegar. (To be expected, I only bottled it up a couple days ago)

Mouth: Thick. Tart and vinegary, but not overwhelmingly so. Vinegar balanced by the apple and cranberry.

Finish: Not Applicable.

Thoughts: This isn’t bad by itself. I wouldn’t seek it out that way, but I could choke it down. Where this shines is as a cocktail ingredient. I used it in place of vermouth in a manhattan and it was fabulous. It mixed with the Very Old Barton and bitters exquisitely. I’m very impressed.

If you are into flavor, the way I am, you owe it to yourself to buy this book. If you want something that will help you impress foodie friends, buy this book. Looking for cocktail ingredients that you haven’t had before? Buy the book. 

You get the picture. I thought it was great.