August 21, 2013

Soup to Nuts: The science of shrubbery

Local mixmasters are putting some exotic new spins on a very old drink.

By Meredith Goad
Staff Writer

Southern Maine bartenders have got some explaining to do.

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Guy Streitburger's finished strawberry-rhubarb shrub with Eight Bells rum.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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At Gingko Blue in Portland, bar manager Guy Streitburger makes his strawberry-rhubarb shrub with Eight Bells rum.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below


From Guy Streitburger, bar manager, Gingko Blue:


1-1/2 cups ripe strawberries, cleaned, hulled and sliced

1 cup rhubarb, cleaned and sliced thin

20 to 30 black peppercorns, coarsely crushed

1 cup balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup cider vinegar (preferably Bragg's organic apple cider vinegar)

1-1/2 cups sugar

Combine strawberries, rhubarb, peppercorns and sugar in a jar. Stir ingredients to make sure it is evenly coated with sugar. Cover and let sit at room temp for 24 hours. Next, add both vinegars and stir well. Refrigerate for 10 to 14 days. Try to stir the mixture every other day. Finally, strain the fruit from the liquid. Transfer the syrup to a clean jar and store in the refrigerator.


1-1/2 ounces Eight Bells rum

3/4 ounce to 1 ounce (depending on your taste) strawberry rhubarb shrub

4 drops habanero tincture (see note)

Soda water


Combine Eight Bells Rum, shrub and habanero tincture in a rocks glass. Finish with soda. Garnish with slice of fresh strawberry.

Note: To make the habanero tincture, infuse vodka with habanero peppers.

From Trey Hughes, who will be on staff at the Portland Hunt and Alpine Club when it opens:


1-1/2 ounces London dry gin

3/4 ounce Dolin Blanc Vermouth

1/2 ounce cucumber shrub (see note)

1/4 ounce lemon juice

Garnish: Orange twist

Garnish: Angostura around the inner rim of the glass (a dropper helps a lot here)

Stir with ice, strain into cocktail glass.


For the shrub, mix 2 parts cucumber juice to 1 part sugar. Stir to dissolve. Take that syrup and mix 2 parts of it with 1 part champagne vinegar.

When they suggest a customer try one of their latest creations -- a shrub cocktail -- often all they get is a quizzical look, or a polite no thank you.

In the public's mind, a shrub cocktail sounds like a drink with bush clippings in it. And it doesn't sound any more appetizing when they learn it's made with a concentrated syrup that contains fruit, sugar and vinegar.

"Even when I would explain it (to customers), saying it was a vinegar-based drink, or a fruit-and-vinegar-based syrup, some would be put off by it," said Guy Streitburger, bar manager at Gingko Blue, who served a cocktail made with strawberry-rhubarb shrub this summer and is working on one made with blueberries and lemon verbena.

Shrubs are old-fashioned drinks that date to Colonial times, but they are on their way back, thanks to the folks behind the bar who are discovering that a shrub's bright, slightly tart, complex flavors make for a stand-out cocktail. Bartenders are doing lots of experimenting by replacing the fruit in the shrub with vegetables and herbs, trying out different kinds of vinegar, and otherwise tweaking the classic shrub formula.

There are suddenly a surprising number of shrub cocktails on local restaurant menus, perhaps because it's traditionally known as a refreshing summer drink. Other theories for its rising popularity include the move away from sugary drinks and the rise of the craft cocktail movement, where fresh, local ingredients are key and everyone is always looking to the past to find something new.

"Even in the cocktail world nationally, it's still a little bit of a niche," said Andrew Volk, who is hoping to open his Portland Hunt and Alpine Club cocktail bar in Portland at the end of the month. "Everybody understands what it is, but it's tough to get right. With shrubs, the acid is very strong, and with that strong of an acid, it takes a certain touch to be able to balance it well."


I first learned about shrubs back in 2006, when I wrote a column about raspberry shrub. A reader had sent me an old Portland Press Herald clipping that appeared to be from around the 1940s. It was a piece by the famous food writer Clementine Paddleford, who is a whole story on her own. (R.W. Apple called her "the Nellie Bly of culinary journalism.")

Paddleford had paid a visit to Maine's own Margaret Chase Smith, and wrote about how the Republican member of Congress used the raspberries she grew at home to make tarts and pies.

"But delight to the lady of Maine was the making of her grandmother's raspberry shrub which she served as a symbol of old-time hospitality," Paddleford wrote. "Now that Mrs. Smith has succeeded her husband in Congress and Washington is home, she makes the shrub there in her kitchenette apartment. But only a dozen bottles this year; shrub dips too deeply into the sugar."

I couldn't resist making a batch of Smith's family shrub. It had just a few ingredients: four quarts of raspberries, one quart of cider vinegar and sugar. Here's the simple recipe, which I ended up cutting in half:

"Clean and pick over berries. Cover with vinegar and let stand for four days. Strain. To each cup of juice add one cup of sugar. Boil 15 minutes and bottle when cold. Approximate yield: 5 cups syrup. Serve diluted with three parts cold water to one part syrup. Fill a tall glass with crushed ice and pour in the perfume. Tingle it, whiff it, sip it -- and smile."

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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The raspberry shrub handed down by the grandmother of legendary Maine politician Margart Chase Smith.

Press Herald file

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A Bing cherry shrub cocktail created by Luke O'Neill, a bartender at Grace in Portland.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Luke O'Neill, bartender at Grace Restaurant, makes a Champagne shrub cocktail that contains Champagne grapes, Champagne vinegar, Dolin Blanc vermouth, Grey Goose vodka, and a Cabernet Sekt (an Austrian sparkling wine) float.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Luke O'Neill's finished Champagne shrub cocktail.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer


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