28 The NaTioNal CuliNary review • July/augus T 2015
sPoTlighT oN … shrubs
“It’s our take on a julep, and all the oaky, vanilla and caramel
notes come through,” he says.
Ragan, who likes these high-acid cocktails because they’re
so food friendly, sometimes builds a cocktail starting with a shrub
that’s inspired by what’s available seasonally then working
backwards to find a matching spirit. But he’s just as likely to
have an idea for a drink and craft a shrub that delivers the profile
he needs. “The trick is to know what you’re going for,” he says.
“Which ingredient do you want to be the star of the show and
what is playing a supporting role.”
Initially, Ragan tried a hot preparation method for his vinegar
syrups, cooking the fruit down, and he still does that when it’s
not quite ripe or past its peak, otherwise, he prefers a simple cold
soak. He lets some shrubs ferment a bit, even adding a little wine
to stimulate the process. He also uses peppercorns, jalapeños and
shishito peppers to spice them up.
Because they are more shelf-stable than freshly squeezed
citrus juice, shrubs are an economical alternative. “We aim to
give customers a $300 experience and a $100 tab,” Ragan says.
“Every cocktail is $10 no matter what goes into it, so maintaining
profitability is hard. When prices for cases of lemons and limes
skyrocketed, shrubs saved us. We were able to stick with our
core commitments to scratch cooking and value without losing
Vinaigrette in a glass
Bartender Chris Mendenhall brought shrubs to the menu at
Westend Bistro, a dining and drinking spot in Washington, D.C.’s
The Ritz-Carlton. “I intentionally use the word ‘shrubs’ on the list.
People don’t know what that is, so it becomes an engagement tool,”
he says. “The curious ask questions and the more adventurous are
willing to give it a try based on our recommendation. Others hear
the word ‘vinegar’ and just back away. I tell them it’s not sour or
harsh, and say, ‘If you like salad dressing, you’ll like this.’ Then I
give them a sample of the shrub on its own.”
Mendenhall generally makes his own shrubs, the most creative
and cost-effective approach, but has also bought premade versions.
“As happened with bitters, there are now companies offering
very good artisanal products,” he says. He’s a fan of Shrub &
Co., Berkeley, California. There are others, including Tait Farm
Foods, Centre Hall, Pennsylvania, Liber & Co., Austin, Texas,
and Shrub Drinks, San Antonio.
One of the things he appreciates about shrub cocktails is that
they are easily customized to suit an individual’s preferences. He
can change the dilution factor or the spirit, and add honey, simple
syrup or juice for more sweetness. “Shrubs stand on their own,
so I can serve them without alcohol,” says Mendenhall. “We get
a lot of requests for that. It’s an adult drink and gives people a
feeling that they’re part of the group. I can do it straight up, on
ice or with club soda.”
above: This cranberry shrub with dry hard cider is from Chris Mendenhall at
leFt: rocco’s offers a “build your own cocktail” option, which allows patrons to
select a shrub and a spirit to add to soda water.