Tart drinks are having a moment, from the profusion of new kombucha brands to cocktails built off shrubs or drinking vinegars: sweetened vinegar-based syrups infused with fruit and spices that date back centuries.
Drinking vinegars, also known as shrubs, refer to both the flavored, sweetened, vinegar-based syrups added to flat or sparkling water to create a soda of sorts, but the terms also apply to the actual beverage itself, which can contain alcohol, too.
Chef Andy Ricker of Pok Pok, longtime proselytizer of Thai food in the US, was one of the first to popularize drinking vinegars when he started serving them at his restaurants in Portland, New York, and now Los Angeles. Says Ricker, "I first discovered the vinegars while shopping at Asian markets in 2006 ... and realized they would go great with the food of Pok Pok." The drinks proved so popular that that year Ricker launched a line of bottled drinking vinegars under the name "Som," which is an old Thai word for "sour." Most Thai now use the word "phriaw" to reference sour flavors, but the name for vinegar is "naam som" or "sour water." The syrups — made from palm vinegar, cane sugar (or honey), citric acid, salt and fruit concentrate — must be diluted with water and/or booze and come in flavors like Thai Basil, Ginger, and Tamarind.
The Som line is just one of many small-batch drinking vinegar/shrub brands on the market. Japanese drinking vinegar company Genki-Su, which sells versions made with coconut vinegar and honey, has no problem capitalizing on drinking vinegar's purported health benefits, citing everything from decreased muscle pain to better digestion and metabolism to lowered cholesterol and blood pressure levels.
For centuries vinegar has been touted for a myriad of health benefits, and given America's current health kick, it's no surprise that these drinks are gaining steam both with and without booze.
Back in the day
Long before Andy Ricker and well-coiffed mixologists, drinking vinegars, known historically as "sherbets" or "sharbats," were consumed in the Middle East. Originally, the syrups were made from fruit, rose petals and sometimes vinegar, and that liquid was diluted with cold water or snow to cool the drinker down in hot summer months. Sherbets spread from Muslim countries through Western Europe where booze was added, and then eventually made their way to the US around the 18th century. Which is where the English words "sorbet" and "sherbet" (similarly sweet and cool foods) originated. However, "sherbet" eventually became known as "shrub," the term used to describe the first drinking vinegar imbibed in America circa the 1830s. Commonly used as a method to preserve fruit and keep the drinker cool, shrubs were ubiquitous in America until well into the 20th century. And with the resurgence of craft and vintage cocktail culture, drinking vinegar/shrubs are fashionable once again.
Where to drink
Cosme in New York combines mezcal, gin, vermouth, shiso shrub, ginger, lime and dehydrated pineapple in the El Ninja. Los Angeles' Drago Centro serves a drink called the Shrewd Litigant, which calls for rum, lime and a housemade blackberry-balsamic shrub. And, finally, the bartenders at Rocco's in Seattle offer a build-your-own shrub cocktail on their menu. Choose between two shrubs: Blackberry-Vanilla with Dry Curaçao or Pineapple-Paprika-Champagne Vinegar with Plantation Rum, then add any spirit and soda.