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14 Sep 2018

On Cocktails: Shrubbs and Switchels Are Delicious and Refreshing—With or Without Alcohol

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Red plum shrubb with soda and mint. Red plum shrubb with soda and mint. Kevin Carlow

A funny thing about the Coachella Valley: Opinions on the “slowest month” in the bar industry vary greatly depending on whom you ask. After what was a surprisingly OK summer, it seems that as of this mid-September writing, we are smack-dab in my nominee for the slowest bar month.

Now, it would be selfish of me to concoct some reason to get you into the bars and restaurants and away from whatever adventures are currently occupying your day—and selfish is not my style. So … if you are taking advantage of the somewhat cooler days to get outside and be active, or maybe just taking a break from the bars, let me throw a couple of concoctions your way to make those parched hikes, thirsty loops around the golf course and pool days a little more pleasant.

I am talking about … and don’t freak out now … vinegar-based beverages!

For those of you who are still reading and haven’t skipped to the beer or wine column, rest assured: These concoctions can certainly be improved with the alcohol of your choice. I will even suggest some pairings.

I have held off writing about shrubb until now for a few reasons, not the least of which is the shrubb fad in cocktails is long past. The other reason is that people just don’t seem to like them. Perhaps the modern American palate rejects vinegar as a flavor in beverages, or maybe it was the heavy-handed way in which bar folk tended to incorporate them into drinks (myself included).

The first time I tried one, maybe 10 years ago, an eager bartender at my favorite spot let me try her lovingly homemade rosemary and thyme version. I was equally intrigued and displeased as I worked the drink down my gullet. A few years later, I experimented with some myself, and sample bottles started piling up inside the reach-in fridges at the bar. Then, poof, it was over. RIP, shrubb fad—and good riddance.

But what exactly is a shrubb, and why should you care?

A shrubb, I have read in several places, is a corruption of the Persian word “sharâb” (or “wine”), and shares the same etymology as “syrup.” A shrubb is, in most cases, a type of syrup … that has taken a left turn into vinegar country. Traditionally, it was a method of preserving fruit in the days before refrigeration. Techniques vary, but if you have some fruit that’s about to spoil, grab a pound, and let’s get colonial:

  • 1 pound or so of the fruit of your choice (but avoid citrus because of the acidity)
  • 3/4 cup to a cup of sugar
  • 3/4 cup to a cup of vinegar (red wine, white wine or apple cider work well; I have high hopes for rice vinegar, too)

Dice the fruit; add the sugar; cover, refrigerate and leave overnight or longer to draw out the liquid. Remove the fruit and strain. Add the vinegar … and you’re done. Boil for a few seconds to make it last longer if you want, but it’s good to go.

You can use the spent fruit; it won’t taste amazing, but it will work on an English muffin or ice cream or something. Usually I use fruit that’s a bit mealy or past its prime, like the red plums in my latest batch … so I don’t bother with the spent fruit. Herbs can be added; too; I usually just toss them in with the fruit and sugar in the first step. Try unconventional things like jalepeños or cucumbers; there are lots of fun options here!

What do you do with this stuff? You force it on friends and family! I like to use about an ounce with soda water and ice, topped with mint, cilantro and even basil. I find it delicious and refreshing as a teetotaler tipple … think kombucha. You could also use it in a cocktail. Try making something margarita- or daiquiri-like and putting a little in there. It adds a unique flavor.

Pineapple shrubb is the king for cocktails, in my opinion; cut back on the vinegar for cocktail use, maybe to half, as there usually will be lime or lemon juice as well in the drink. Perhaps make a sauce with it. Experiment!

Now onto the main event: Switchel!

Switchel, yankee punch or swizzle was a colonial “sports drink” popular in New England and the Caribbean. I am assuming from the name that it was probably mixed with a thin branch, or switch, as the modern cocktails in the swizzle family are. The earliest recipe I have seen, I found on the excellent “Jas. Townsend and Sons” colonial cooking YouTube channel (yes, this is what I do with my spare time), and it comes from The Skilled Housewife, an 18th century cookbook.

  • 1/2 gallon of water
  • 1/2 cup unsulfured molasses
  • 1/4 cup of vinegar (apple cider)
  • 1 tablespoon of powdered ginger

Mix, serve chilled.

You didn’t think I was going to just leave it alone, now, did you? I did two versions—one with Vermont maple syrup, and the other with California wildflower honey instead of the molasses. I used a thumb of smashed fresh ginger in both, since I am not going for historical accuracy here. I also reduced the recipe by half. To the maple syrup version, I added:

  • One small Gala apple, diced
  • One stick of cinnamon
  • A pinch of green caraway seeds
  • Several star anise pods

Leave it overnight in the refrigerator, and transfer to a thermos after straining; place another cinnamon stick into the thermos. Go on a hike, preferably somewhere at cooler elevations. When the climb, altitude and exhaustion start to hit, take a good swig in the shade. I did just that in Idyllwild, and my hiking companion and I felt totally rejuvenated. I also think it would be amazing with apple brandy or a nice Barbados rum, even bourbon. Garnish it with some apples or lemons, thinly sliced, and serve it with a block of ice on a hot day. Yankee punch indeed.

What about the honey version? It was so tasty that it may end up on a cocktail menu or in a bottle at some point, so I have to keep some secrets!

Yeah, maybe I am a little selfish after all, but it’s slow this time of year …

Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Truss and Twine, and can be reached via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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