Bars & Clubs 2019

Bring Me a Shrub!

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SHAKE IT: Brian Han of 55 South.Photo by Greg Ramar

Raising the glass to his lips and taking a sip, Brian Han immediately knew something was amiss. The bar manager for San Jose craft cocktail lounge 55 South had created the drink's syrup by combining grapefruit juice and sugar with the aromatic perennial rosemary. He was aiming to put a wintery spin on a traditional summertime tequila cocktail—the paloma. Only problem was the normally bright, citrus-forward flavor of the grapefruit had been dulled.

That's when he reached for the vinegar and tried again.

With the addition of a little apple cider vinegar to his mixture, Han created what's known in the cocktail world as a "shrub."

Traditionally used as a way to preserve produce, shrubs are ideal for punching up a drink, adding tang and other interesting textures in the process. Basically, shrubs are a kind of acid—acetic acid. And they serve a similar purpose as lemons, limes and other fruits high in citric acid. They allow bartenders to add more flavor without introducing as much sweetness as a sugar-and-fruit syrup add.

Han has also created shrubs with balsamic vinegar (and strawberries). Typically, though, he looks to the more neutral champagne vinegar when crafting a shrub. Basil, thyme, sage and other similar herbs are other common elements, and berries of all stripes are regularly thrown in to add color and fruity flavor.

"We're always playing around," Han says, noting that 55 South's ever evolving menu demands that he and the rest of the bar staff regularly experiment with new flavor profiles. Recently, that has increasingly included shrubs.

"They're not always good, but we don't put the bad ones on the menu," he adds with a laugh.

Syrus Fotovat, bar manager at the Willow Glen restaurant Braise, says shrubs are nothing new. In fact, they've been around for centuries. He says it's helpful to think of them like a fruitier version of pickles. The vinegar preserves the fruit, making it far more shelf stable.

"When you're dealing with a fruit syrup alone, you have to keep it cold," he says. Shrubs benefit from refrigeration, but can be left out for an entire shift without fear of the ambient temperature of the room degrading the mixture. A house-made grenadine, on the other hand, might begin to ferment if it were left out overnight.

Originally, Fotovat says, shrubs were used to preserve fruit later into the year. But bartenders eventually picked them up. As is often the case on the craft cocktail scene, the rediscovery of shrubs first manifested in bigger cities before spreading across the country.

He's glad the trend has trickled down to his hometown. "It's nice to have a little more bandwidth and a little more room to play," he says.

Fotovat notes that shrubs are also a great way to produce a non-alcoholic beverage for a grown-up palate. "For mocktails, shrubs are one of the best ways to go," Han explains—the bite of the vinegar mimics the bite of booze. And it definitely makes for a more interesting flavor profile than a cola or lemon-lime soft drink.