A few of Dave Whitton's shrub creations at Villains Tavern in downtown… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)
Shrubs — they're not just for hiding in!
Tart, acidic and weirdly, wonderfully refreshing, drinking vinegars known as "shrubs" are finding a savory home on a growing number of Los Angeles drink menus. Sometimes they're added to soda water as an alternative to mainstream sodas, and sometimes they're mixed with booze as a mouth-pleasing alternative to predictable acids such as lemons and limes. Either way, they're adding a welcome new dimension to the ever-evolving Los Angeles craft cocktail scene.
"Shrubs give a deeper flavor profile to drinks," says Jaymee Mandeville, the mixologist at Drago Centro who is now serving several spring shrub cocktails, including a deconstructed stunner of a Bloody Mary named Night and the City, featuring gin, heirloom tomato shrub, black pepper squid ink syrup and Miracle Mile Candy Cap Mushroom bitters. "They're just another tool to play around with."
Shrubs, which are generally one part juice or fruit macerated with sugar and boiled with vinegar, were mixed with water in 18th century America for refreshment. Vinegar was also used as a preservative and for its supposed medicinal benefits. It was only a matter of time before alcohol made the grade, but shrub cocktails never achieved a full liftoff.
These days, however, as mixologists strive to rediscover historical tricks of the trade, you can find a slew of summer shrub cocktails on Justin Pike's menu at the Tasting Kitchen, spiced cider shrub by Allan Katz at Cana Rum Bar, a celery shrub with mescal by Julian Wayser at Playa, a tiki-inspired shrub made with coconut vinegar by Naomi Schimek at the Spare Room, a cider apricot bourbon shrub at the Hudson, a strawberry balsamic pisco shrub at the Churchill and many more.
At chef Josef Centeno's new downtown restaurant, Baco Mercat, rows of clear glass jars filled with novel flavors of shrubs, including persimmon, tangerine-Szechwan, lime-chile and grapefruit-canela, take up an entire top shelf in a walk-in cooler. They glisten mischievously in the white-bulb light, daring you to taste them. You love vinegar on your spinach salad, but do you really want to drink it?
"As a kid, my grandmother would do a little Sprite with apple cider vinegar for us," says Centeno, who has made shrub-based "sour sodas" a focal point on his menu, alongside alcoholic brethren such as Inca Punch (chicha morada shrub, pisco, lemon, lime and pineapple) and CG&T (gin, tonic, celery seed shrub, cucumber). He also sells his shrubs for $12 to $18 per 12-ounce bottle.
At Dana Hollister's downtown drinking hideout, Villains Tavern, mixologist Dave Whitton recently unveiled a new menu of shrub-based cocktails called the Shrubbery, featuring exotic vinegarisms such as a grape red wine, strawberry aged balsamic and apricot orange Muscat.
The Muscat shrub he mixes with Milagro Reposado tequila, fresh lime juice, sea salt and orange oils to create a hypnotic, tangy margarita derivative named Venus Flytrap. For a swarthy swallow called Snakeroot, which resembles a cross between a Manhattan and an Old-Fashioned, Whitton mixes a strawberry balsamic shrub with Black Bush Irish whiskey, Cardamaro and fragrant rosemary.
"My favorite chips are salt and vinegar, so I was trying to figure out a way to complement that in a cocktail," says Whitton, as one of his bartenders boils fresh pomegranate and ginger juice with apple cider vinegar and sugar, a process that produces a rich, fragrant scent, like something you might want to pour on French toast.
Gabriella Mlynarczyk, the Death & Co.-trained mixologist who recently migrated from Eva to Ink, is developing a number of shrubs, including a beet and lemon shrub as well as a ginger-yuzu shrub. Like Centeno, she'll mix either shrub with alcohol or just soda.
She says that a lot of people came to Eva who didn't drink alcohol and asked for Sprite or Coke.
"I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to canned soda, so I'd go to the table and say, 'Listen, I have this beautiful syrup. Would you like to try it with a little bit of soda?'" she says. "Shrubs are sweet and sour and fruity, and really beautiful to drink regardless of whether they are alcoholic or not."