Once again, it looks like I spoke too soon. No sooner did I finish wailing about the end of summer than we were hit with a heavy heat wave. This weekend was dry and blue and deeply, deceptively hot. So I drank all the icy drinks I could find.
Lately Sam and I have been into shrubs. (Not shrubberies. Shrubs.) A shrub is an an alcohol-free cocktail of sorts, built on an old-school mode of preservation: fruit vinegar. We first stumbled across this at the Oregon Berry Festival, where there was a stand selling deeply colored syrups and mixing tiny sample drinks for passers-by. A cheerful, motherly woman poured a few drops into a paper cup from a bottle labeled “drinking vinegar,” added some sparkling water and a tiny ice cube, and handed it over. We tasted, and we believed.
I know this sounds strange–every time I say the words “drinking vinegar,” people wrinkle their noses and hunch up their shoulders. So don’t think of it as vinegar, exactly. Think of it as “shrub syrup,” a tangy-sweet potion of fruit and vinegar and sugar, to be drizzled into a glass of cold fizzy water and enjoyed over ice. A good shrub is tart but not biting, with a solid hum of fruit and just enough sweetness to cut the acid from the bubbles. You can easily vary the sourness of the drink by adding more or less syrup, as you see fit.
This particular syrup came about more or less by accident. It started out as a straightforward infused vinegar, and a leftover use-up: I had the pits and dregs from a bag of cherries, and the remnants of a bunch of tarragon. So I combined them in a bowl, poured over some hot vinegar, and let them steep for a couple hours. The resulting vinegar was lovely and fragrant, but extremely subtle; I tried using it in salad dressings, but none of the cherry flavor came through. So I decided to mix in some sugar and turn it into a shrub syrup. It was a wonderful decision.
A tablespoon of this syrup, stirred into a glass of iced fizzy water, makes a shrub that is light, sweet and aromatic. There’s a whisper of cherry and a hint of licorice, and the whole glass is tinted a very pale pink. There’s a touch of vinegar-tang, but really, it just tastes like a slightly upscale Italian soda. It was the perfect thing to sip under an open window with a fan on full blast.
Cherry Tarragon Shrub Syrup (makes about 1 1/3 cups)
Pits, juice, and fleshy bits from 1 1/2 – 2 lb sweet cherries
2 sprigs fresh tarragon
1 cup white wine vinegar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
In a small mixing bowl or measuring cup, combine cherry material and tarragon. Heat vinegar just until it steams (if using a thermometer, heat to 190º F). Pour the vinegar over the solids in the bowl. Cover and let steep for 1-2 hours.
While the vinegar steeps, sterilize a 1-pint (2-cup) glass jar or bottle with a tight-fitting lid. Let the jar cool completely.
Strain the vinegar and funnel it into the bottle or jar. Add sugar, close the container, and shake to combine. The syrup is now ready to use, but will reach optimum flavor after about a week in the fridge. Shake it once every day or so for the first week, to make sure the sugar stays dissolved. The syrup will keep in the refrigerator for up to 6 months.
To make a shrub, combine 1 tbsp syrup and 6-8 oz sparkling water. Serve over ice.