Winter cocktail season is upon us, from the steaming hot toddies in the Stanley thermos, to the soothing cognac in the snifter beside the fireplace, to the bubbly effervescence of champagne cocktails on New Years Eve. With the popular DIY movement underfoot, it is likely that you may want to try your hand at a few craft cocktails. This post will help you with some basic ratios and ideas for mixing up craft cocktails using shrub syrups (either tangy shrub syrups or their sweeter sister – simple syrups). There are also links to specific cocktail recipes that use shrub syrups as an ingredient.
First things First: What is a Shrub Syrup?
Basically a shrub syrup is a fruity-acidic concentrated syrup that can be used to flavor carbonated water, iced tea, lemonades, cocktails or mocktails. Bartenders (mixologists) are embracing shrub syrups as an innovative alternative to the sour element of citrus in cocktails.
The term “shrub” is derived from the Arabic word sharāb meaning “to drink”. The American version has its origins in the 17th century, when vinegar was used to preserve berries and other fruits. The shrub syrup of Colonial times resulted in a sweet and sour syrup that was most often mixed with water and served as a refreshing drink on the porch or in the field.
A common ratio of ingredients in making a shrub syrup would include equal parts of fresh berry juice, apple cider vinegar and pure cane sugar. Of course, variations in the type of fruit, vinegar or sugar are endless, but the classic recipe uses the ingredients listed above in equal parts. Aromatics or herbs are often added, sometimes in place of the berries and sometimes as an enhancement to the berries.
DIY Shrub Syrup Tips
The process of making shrubs also varies. The quickest and easiest method of making shrubs is the stove top method, outlined as follows:
- add equal parts of sugar and water to a pot and heat until the sugar dissolves;
- add fruit to the sugar syrup and simmer until fruit breaks down and is blended into the syrup;
- strain the syrup, add the vinegar to it, pour into a bottle and store in the refrigerator.
Some people prefer a “cold processing” method, which is basically as follows:
- let the berries steep in sugar for several days until their juices are released;
- Strain the berry-sugar syrup to remove pulp or solids, add vinegar and bottle up
A final popular method is:
- infuse the vinegar with fruit and let sit for several days;
- strain, and then add sugar to taste
I vary my method for making shrub syrups depending on the type of fruit or shrub base. Strawberries are slower to release their juice, and I might opt for cold shrubbing strawberries. Some of the woodier herbs need quite a bit of heat to release their oils and I would opt for a stove top shrubbing process in this case.
If you are making your own shrub syrups, give yourself some lead time before you plan on using them. The vinegar is very strong and pungent at the beginning. It will mellow quite a bit over time as it melds with the fruit and sugar. After a few weeks you will have a shrub syrup with sweet, tart and fruity flavors in perfect harmony.
Why use Shrub Syrups in Craft Cocktails?
Both the tangy shrub syrups and the sweeter simple syrups have their place in beverages, it is really just a matter of taste. The shrub syrups can add a depth and complexity that you might not get with a simple syrup and they are, of course, less sweet.
Many of the cocktails that recommend using shrub syrups will also include bitters. This tends to round out your drink, giving you the full range of sweet, sour, and bitter flavors. A few other reasons the shrub syrups are coming back in vogue include:
- many are made with apple cider vinegar, which is considered good for your health (but hard to get down by the spoonful)
- shrub syrups add complexity and depth and cut the sweetness (see above explanation)
- they are often considered an alternative to using citrus juices in cocktails, which some people cannot have or do not like
- cocktails with shrub syrups are said to stimulate the appetite
- they are shelf stable (unlike citrus), and easy to keep on hand (can store for up to a year in the fridge)
- vinegar is a good carrier of chile peppers if you like to add spice to your beverages.
The How-to of making Craft Cocktails using Shrub Syrups
I think mixology is very similar to baking actually. The core ingredients are always there in fairly specific ratios and then you can get creative with flavor enhancement around this core.
I was a bartender throughout my twenties, as I was working my way in and out of grad school (I did not take a very direct course). Bartending helped me get familiar with the flavor profiles of the many spirits and liqueurs, but back then fresh fruit was only seen on the garnish tray. While the current popularity of mixology has definitely enhanced the creative side of cocktails, it has also brought the status of a “mixologist” up to celebrity chef status, which can be intimidating to those of us who just want to make and share a good drink.
I think perhaps we need to relax with this trend a bit more. Mixing your own cocktails is basically about learning the approximate ratios between a spirit, a sweetener (syrup), and a complementary liqueur. Flavored bitters, fresh fruit, smoke, fresh vegetables or herbs are the enhancements that might take a good cocktail to a great one. When starting out with DIY mixology, you might find you are plenty happy with “good”.
Ratios of Spirits & Shrub Syrups for Simple Cocktails or Mocktails
The following blueprint is one easy way to look at mixing drinks in your home with the materials you have at hand. For a more in-depth look at mixology, I would recommend DIY Cocktails, by Marcia Simmons & Jonas Halpren or Edible Cocktails, by Natalie Bovis.
For Martinis or Cocktails that are Strained into chilled glass (aka “up”):
- 2 oz. Base Spirit
- 1/2 oz. Beverage Syrup (Shrub or Simple Syrup)
- 1/2 oz. Complementary Liqueur
- Bitters (anywhere from a dash to 5 drops)
For Cocktails that are served over ice (on the rocks or on crushed ice):
- 2 parts spirit
- 1 part citrus
- 1/2 part syrup
- Splash of soda
- muddled fresh herb, berry or vegetable
For Easy Mocktails:
- 1 part Beverage Syrup
- 4 parts Carbonated non-alcoholic beverage (i.e., club soda, ginger Ale, Ginger Beer, tonic water, etc.)
- muddled herb, berry or vegetable
Cocktail/Mocktail Recipes with Shrub Syrups & Beverage Syrups
If you are interested in specific cocktail recipes tested by yours truly and family, enter cocktails in the search bar and you’ll find several posts on specific recipes using shrub syrups. Some of the recipes use HeathGlen’s beverage syrups or shrub syrups and some are just fun seasonal cocktails to try with or without the syrups.
Take inspiration from our syrup recipes or our cocktail recipes. If, however, you are not in the “spirit” to make your own syrups, or don’t have the time or ingredients, you can always purchase them online from HeathGlen.