If you’ve been to a bar or grocery store in the last five years, you’ve seen terms like “shrub,” “drinking vinegar,” and “switchel.” What sound like landscaping, a punishment for swearing, and a Southern-style spanking are actually all pieces of a prominent category of vinegar-based concoctions roaring back into popular drinking culture.
Imbibers are wary upon first encounter with the word “vinegar” in a beverage, myself included, but drinking vinegars are nothing new. “Shrubs go back thousands of years when they were popular around ancient Iran,” explains Alex Zweber, owner of local company Sharab Shrubs. “Switchels have been around since colonial America.”
Shrubs—a combination of fruit, sugar, and vinegar—are primarily syrups or flavor concentrates meant to be mixed and diluted. Shrubs can vary in strength and acidity but offer a good place to start a cocktail: two ounces of spirit, one ounce of shrub, a half ounce of citrus, three quarters of an ounce of simple syrup, top it all off with club soda.
A switchel (or haymaker’s punch) is a mixture of apple cider vinegar, a sweetener like molasses or honey, and, commonly, ginger or spices. This was meant to keep farm workers hydrated without weighing them down. Zweber puts it delightfully: “So they wouldn’t get too sloshy.” Switchels come ready-made and practically begging to be spiked.
Examine the building blocks of drink creation and vinegar is an obvious addition to cocktails. In our current post-sugarbomb cocktail movement, the goal is to achieve balanced drinks through the careful application of acids. The most familiar source is citrus juice—the bite of citric acid is wonderful, but it’s not the only acid that can do the job.
Apples and rhubarb are common local flavors and bring a big malic acid punch to the palate. Grapes and bananas lead with tartaric acid, and dairy provides lactic acid. Vinegars have acetic acid, which can feel sharper on the back palate (whereas citric acid brings on a cheek squeeze, like in Sour Patch Kids).
Making a drinking vinegar is simple: combine a good white wine vinegar and fruit in a container and let it sit for about a week. (The shortcut is fruit juice, but it won’t be as delicious.) Then, dissolve a sweetening agent—sugar, honey, agave—into the mixture using heat, or some time and counter space, until you think it tastes good. Once it’s ready, experiment with your fruit vinegar as part of the sour component in your favorite cocktails, and see what new drinks the results inspire you to make.