A cocktail is a little like a blank slate, an empty canvas. At least it is to me. A base spirit on which you can write whatever story you would like. There are so many possibilities with which to fill all that blank space, and sometimes I don’t even have to think about it – a gin and tonic, a dirty martini, an old-fashioned are all on repeat. But some days I want to break from the mold, create something unusual, write something that’s never been written before. And that’s when I sometimes suffer from what could be akin to writer’s block (“cocktail block”??). I might want something sweet, or something herbal. Something fruity, something smoky. Or I might not have a clue what I want, I just know I want something! Enter the shrub. A complexly sweet and sour syrupy mixture of vinegar, fruit and sugar that, when mixed with a base spirit and a little sparkling water, will take an ordinary cocktail to the next level.
Shrubs originated in colonial America as a way to preserve fruit before the invention of canning. They can be made with almost any fresh fruit that happens to be in season, and they’re the best way to use fruit that is a little damaged, but perfectly edible nonetheless.
There are two ways to make a shrub from scratch: the fast way and the slow way. The fast way involves boiling the fruit, sugar and a little water together, as if you’re making a simple syrup. Then cooling, steeping and adding the vinegar. One hour of work – tops. The slow way is made by macerating the fruit in the sugar for several days to draw out its own natural water and juices, so no additional water is needed. Then cold-infusing the vinegar with the fruit for a week in the refrigerator. Like making a pot of beans, the end result of the quick method is edible but quite inferior to that of the slow method which yields a much purer, more complex and balanced flavour. And really, as your main tool is simply time, it is less work than the fast method in the long run.
This Strawberry-Balsamic Shrub was inspired by a syrup my husband and I used to make to pour over vanilla ice cream. It’s crucial that you use organic strawberries but they don’t need to be perfect. The mushy ones at the bottom of the carton are best for this purpose. Use a high quality balsamic and an organic apple cider vinegar (with the “Mother” – the cloudy sediment that occurs in raw vinegar) for the best results.
P.S. The beautiful silk orchids in these photos were provided by CSI Wall Panels. I think they are a stunning and simple spring centerpiece on the kitchen table!
150 g. hulled organic strawberries
150 g. caster sugar
1/2 cup organic apple cider vinegar
3 TBSP balsamic vinegar
Clean, hull and quarter the strawberries and place in a non-reactive bowl. Add the sugar and stir to combine. Cover the bowl and allow the strawberries to macerate in the refrigerator for 48 – 72 hours. Stirring once a day. You want the juices from the strawberries to almost completely dissolve the sugar, but it’s okay if there is still a little crystalized sugar remaining after this process.
On the third day, stir in both types of vinegars. Cover and refrigerate again, for one week, stirring or swirling the bowl every few days to incorporate the remaining sugar.
Using a fine mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth, strain the shrub into a clean jar. The shrub is now ready to use in cocktails or mocktails, but will continue to improve with age. Keep refrigerated. It should last up to a month, but discard if it becomes foamy or discoloured.
Strawberry-Balsamic Shrub Cocktail
(for 1 drink)
2 oz. vodka
1 oz. Lillet Blanc
1 oz. strawberry balsamic shrub
sparking water or club soda
In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, mix the vodka, Lillet and shrub. Shake well until very cold. Strain into a Collins glass filled with fresh ice. Pour in the sparkling water, to taste, and serve.