The Pacific Northwest is blessed with the prosperity of locally grown fruits and produce, so it’s only natural that we are always thinking of the best ways to make use of regional, seasonal goods in our drinks. If you’re overwhelmed by blackberries in the summer, you can whip up a batch of Brambles, or make use of winter citrus for some blood orange whiskey sours. But there’s a more recent trend in the cocktail world which allows you to get the taste of fresh, seasonal fruit in your cocktail at any time of the year you like: welcome to the world of shrubs.
A shrub — not the kind you plant in your yard — is essentially a fruit vinegar designed for drinking. The word derives from the Arabic sharab, meaning “to drink,” and the popularity of such fruit vinegars and cordials in cocktail making dates back to 16th century England, where they were used to mask the taste of low quality smuggled spirits. They’re made by macerating fruit, sugar, and vinegar together, and leaving the mixture to settle, ultimately producing a syrup that’s both sweet and tart.
The popularity of shrubs and drinking vinegars has exploded in the last few years, but for Molly Rogers of Lola’s Fruit Shrubs in Eugene, Oregon, it was a childhood memory that prompted her to start making them for friends and family. Growing up in Texas, her grandmother — the eponymous Lola — used to preserve peaches in vinegar.
“We used to eat it on ice cream and I just remembered how good that sweet and sour combination was,” Rogers says. That memory inspired her to make a lime shrub to zing up her margaritas, which she missed after moving from Texas to Oregon. Pleased with the result, she expanded her repertoire to include summer berry shrubs, sharing with friends and eventually opening her business in late 2013.
Working in Oregon means that Rogers has a wealth of local produce to work with. “The bounty of fruit we get in Oregon is unbelievable, especially in the Willamette Valley,” Rogers says. “I can make a product that’s local, sustainable and that supports local agriculture.”
Rogers says she has also been lucky to have a great deal of input from her local community — starting small meant she really got to engage customers in the process of making the shrubs. “People could taste various recipes and give feedback on which recipe they liked, which sweeteners, concentrations, etc., so the community has been a huge part of this from the beginning,” she says.
Lola’s lime, fennel-lemon and orange shrubs are available year round, and right now she also recommends her tomato-coriander and elderberry-hibiscus shrubs. Made from fruit picked in August, they will last indefinitely at home.
“The great thing about shrubs is that they enable you to make a cocktail which is super simple, original and delicious,” Rogers says. “It doesn’t need a lot of ingredients or special tools.”
Each of Lola’s shrub comes with a simple recipe on the label that you can start with at home. Mix a shrub with your favorite spirit; perhaps add some sparkling water to dilute or a complementary liqueur to jazz it up.
For a really easy introduction to Lola’s Fruit Shrubs, this variation on a classic Lemon Drop features the fennel-lemon shrub and Willamette Valley vodka.
Lola’s Fennel-Lemon Drop
Makes 1 cocktail
2 ounces Lola’s Fruit Shrubs fennel-lemon
1 ounce Vivacity Spirits Fine vodka
Optional garnish: lemon twist or slice
Add vodka and shrub to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake vigorously, then strain into a chilled martini glass.