I have a Cocktail Confidante to whom I turn when I need inspiration or advice. He is an amateur beverage scientist who approaches his subject with the curiosity, passion and dedication of a Marie Curie or Frederick Banting.
He spends hours on applied research in his laboratory, and many more hours studying cocktail theory and practice at his desk. His laboratory cupboards are organized and spacious, with syrups, bitters and base spirits organized by type.
He has a collection of 165 handwritten recipe cards, each featuring a different cocktail, and a house menu of more than 30 cocktails from which his guests can order. He has tested them all, and thinks nothing of making five different cocktails for five different guests at one go.
His personal rule is two cocktails per week, and on non-cocktail days he makes complicated and delicious booze-free drinks. He has never liked the term mocktail because it describes what the drink is not, rather than what it is. And so he made up his own name: it is branch, which cleverly captures the relationship between a drink made without booze and its boozy relative – it’s a branch of the same family tree. My friend is even more clever than that, etymologically and mixologically. Many of his branches are grown on a shrub.
A shrub is an old-fashioned, refreshing drink made with fruit, vinegar and sugar, popular in colonial America in the days before refrigeration. Fermentation preserved the fruit. (The good old Joy of Cooking, that culinary bible of traditions old and new, has a recipe for fruit shrub, co-referenced in the recipe for raspberry vinegar. “Would you believe this makes for a marvellously refreshing drink served over crushed ice?” the authors ask. “See page 42.”)
Shrubs are now a common feature in modern cocktail recipes; they add sugar, fruit and acid in one go. They also make a great trunk from which to grow branches.
Shrubs are easy to make, well within the grasp of the home cook. Joy of Cooking proposes the hot process of shrub-making, where you cook the fruit and sugar together before adding vinegar. But my Cocktail Confidante (let’s call him CoCo for short) prefers the cold process, as espoused by shrub specialist Michael Dietsch in his book Shrubs: An Old-fashioned Drink for Modern Times. To make a cold-processed shrub, you macerate fresh fruit or vegetables with sugar and vinegar for several hours to a couple of days, strain, and leave the resulting syrup to ripen in the fridge for a week or so. This is your shrub.
CoCo gave me a copy of Shrubs some time ago. I haven’t yet tried my hand, but I’ve tasted plenty of CoCo’s brilliant combinations of fruits and herbs, or fruits and vegetables, and now that the northern berry season approaches, I’m willing to give up some of the berries in my freezer for shrub-making, and will try to emulate his success.
In the meantime, CoCo has kindly agreed to provide two of his own recipes. This is a treat. Try this branch. Seriously, we are in the hands of a master.
(Adapted from Shrubs: An Old-fashioned Drink for Modern Times)
- 3 organic apples (peels, core, and all) quartered
- 1 cup (250 mL) organic apple cider vinegar
- ½ cup (125 mL) cane sugar
- 1 Tbsp cardamom seeds, lightly crushed
Using a box grater or food processor, grate the apples. In a non-reactive container, mix all the ingredients and leave covered in a cool spot on the counter for two days.
Strain the mixture through a jelly bag, squeezing out all the liquid. Discard the solids and pour the liquid into a clean mason jar. The flavour and balance will improve over time, so store it for at least two weeks before using. In the refrigerator it will keep for up to a year.
Makes 10 to 12 oz.
- 1 ½ oz Apple-Cardamom Shrub
- 1 large strawberry and 1 lime wedge
- ½ oz lime juice
- ¼ oz cane syrup
- ¼ oz grenadine syrup
- 2 dashes rhubarb bitters
- Soda water to top
- Garnish: lime wheel
In a shaker, muddle the strawberry and lime wedge with the rhubarb bitters. Add the remaining ingredients except soda and garnish and shake with ice. Strain into an ice-filled Collins glass, top up with soda, and garnish with the lime wheel. Serve with a straw.
- 1 cup (250 mL) cane sugar
- ½ cup (125 mL) water
Stir over medium heat until the sugar has completely dissolved but do not allow it to boil. Cool and store in a clean bottle.