I had my first vinegar cocktail back in 2008 at PDT. It was called Paul's Club Cocktail, invented by Jim Meehan. Gin, simple syrup, a shrub made of concord grapes and a dash of Ricard. Relatively simple, but it was a revelation at the time. I liked it immediately. Vinegar has been a cultish ingredient in the cocktail renaissance for a few years now, but lately the trend has blossomed. I began noticing vinegar drinks in greater number a few months ago, shortly before and after having attended a seminar on the subject at Tales of the Cocktail in July. Two of the speakers at that seminar—Kelley Slagle and Ashley Greene—are quoted in the below article, which I wrote for the Times.
Make Mine a Vinegar Solution
Like many restaurants, Saxon & Parole likes to tantalize a diner with an amuse-bouche. But at this new Bowery restaurant the waiter doesn’t deliver a lightly grilled scallop or some tuna tartare on a slice of cucumber. No, he hands you a glass of vinegar.
Well, not quite. Saxon & Parole’s palate cleanser of choice is a shrub, which is not a leafy bush in this case, but a genus of sweetened vinegar-based beverage that has its roots in Colonial days. Lately the beverage director, Naren Young, has been assembling a pomegranate shrub, from pomegranate seeds and a tablespoon of pomegranate molasses left to macerate in cabernet vinegar and water, topped with a float of fino sherry.
Make no mistake: the piquant shot will prime your senses plenty for the coming meal. As Kelley Slagle, a former beverage director at Hearth and a shrub advocate, put it, “Vinegar’s the Zamboni for the tongue.”
In the public mind, vinegar doesn’t send off terribly positive vibrations to the drinker. It’s what wine turns into when it goes bad. But a collection of mixologists across the country are reaching back through the centuries to reclaim vinegar’s more palatable past.
“You can trace vinegar drinks back to the 18th century” in America, said Wayne Curtis, the liquor writer and historian. “The berries and fruits came and went so quickly, that people used vinegar as an acid to preserve them.” With the addition of sugar and water, refrigeration-bereft American pioneers had a tart, bracing beverage. Of course, it wasn’t long before someone realized that shrubs made dandy mixers. “You threw in some rum or whiskey, and that has a nice effect as well,” Mr. Curtis said.
Crack a 19th-century cocktail book, and you’ll find a shrub or three. But vinegar lost its position in the back bar early in the last century. Not until recently have restlessly inventive bartenders fetched it up from the pantry, embracing it as “the other acid,” an alternative to same-old-same-old lemons and limes.
And some have gone beyond simple shrubs — “the darling of vinegar cocktails,” in Ms. Slagle’s estimation. They’ll deploy vinegar straight in some drinks, as does Cabell Tomlinson, beverage director at Frankies 570 in the West Village, whose Tossed and Turned is a Dark and Stormy derivative pricked with balsamic vinegar. Or they’ll use a flavor-intense shrub reduction called a gastrique, as does Lynn House, the mixologist at the Blackbird restaurant in Chicago, who uses an apple cider vinegar gastrique in her Cognac-based Oz cocktail.
This fall, Peels, just across the Bowery from Saxon & Parole, will introduce a switchel. Modeled on a popular early American cooler, it combines molasses, ginger, apple cider vinegar, apple cider and dark rum. Ashley Greene, the bartender responsible for that drink, has also been toying with Manhattans, lacing them with a tincture of white wine vinegar and fennel seeds. “If you add a tiny bit,” Ms. Greene said, “it brightens up the acidity in a way that’s really attractive.”
Nonalcoholic vinegar beverages are also back from the dead. At Peels, the beverage director Yana Volfson has a short list of un-spiked shrubs, including raspberry, cranberry and beet versions. So does the Queens Kickshaw, an Astoria restaurant.
“We were making our own pickles in house,” said Ben Sandler, the owner. “The pickling liquid was being thrown away. Shrubs were a way to reduce waste, but also make something delicious.”
Jen Snow, a spokeswoman at Russ & Daughters, the Lower East Side smoked-fish store, told a similar eureka story born of thrift. “We pickle and cure beets when we make our beet, apple and herring salad, and we use the pickled beet juice that results from that step to make a shrub drink,” she said. The beet-lemon shrub was introduced last year and sells well.
Mr. Curtis attributes mixologists’ growing fascination with vinegar to “the restless search for something people haven’t done, and scouring history books.” That may well have been the genesis, but bartenders have found other reasons not to sour on the ingredient.
“For one thing, it’s shelf-stable,” Ms. Slagle said. “I’ve never had a shrub go bad. Flavor-wise, it has a lot more complexity than citrus.”
Noah Ellis, who regularly keeps two or three vinegar cocktails on the menu at Red Medicine, his restaurant in Beverly Hills, Calif., likes the acid’s talents as a fire-delivery system.
“Instead of throwing in a chile in a drink and muddling it, if you use just a little bit of chile or ginger in vinegar, it is a good carrier of that heat,” he said.
Vinegar is also a potential cost saver. “You don’t have to use a lot,” said Damon Boelte, the beverage director at Prime Meats in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, where you can order a Sidewalker, a beer-and-apple-brandy cocktail laced with apple cider vinegar. “You can buy one bottle per season.” (Bonus: vinegar doesn’t have to be squeezed every day.)
Many bartenders have found that their acidulous concoctions have received a surprisingly warm welcome.
The Celery Gimlet — Naren Young’s drink made of gin, lime juice, celery juice, green Chartreuse, chardonnay vinegar, celery bitters and a lightly pickled celery-strip garnish — is the most popular cocktail at Saxon & Parole. Still, it pays to tread lightly in drink descriptions.
“I never flat out say vinegar on the menu,” Ms. House said. “I use words like shrub or gastrique. Most people are shocked when they find out what the secret ingredient is.”