I love making homemade ingredients. All it takes is one idea--pepper syrup, rhubarb bitters, strawberry liqueur, lime cordial--and I'm off and running. And often when inspiration does hit, I end up knee-deep in four or five different projects simultaneously. Sometimes the bounty of goods at the farmer's market proves irresistible, sometimes it's just a spontaneous thought about a flavor combination. But regardless of the catalyst, as well as whether a project will take hours, days or even months to complete, the challenges always seem to spring up after the final results are in. Because homemade ingredients are often unique, finding interesting ways to use them can be the biggest obstacle. And time is not always on one's side. Bitters and liqueurs can change over extended periods. And while fortification and refrigeration can extend the life of most syrups, nothing contributes to future waste like lack of use.
Recently I ran into this problem after making two different kinds of vinegar-based citrus shrubs. Because a shrub is preserved with vinegar, it certainly has a longer shelf life than a fruit syrup. But when it comes to potential uses, this vinegar component can make success more difficult. Most fruit syrups can easily be incorporated into drinks where citrus juice or dry ingredients can balance the sweetness. More common shrubs, such as raspberry or blackberry, are challenging because of the vinegar component, but when citrus has been incorporated into the shrub, the options become even more limited. In the past, I have allowed experimental projects to languish in the back of my booze cabinet or even worse in the back of my refrigerator. But this time, I was more determined to find uses for these ingredients.
Meyer Lemon Shrub
When starting from scratch, usually the best place to start is with something familiar. One of the first drinks I ever had that called for a shrub was a simple, elegant mixture of shrub and dry sherry. The bite of the vinegar's acetic acid pairs superbly with the almost savory dryness of sherry. Why not start there? With the citrus element, and the inherent lightness of the sherry-shrub combination, gin seemed the natural choice for a base spirit. The bitters provided a necessary depth and contrast, but what really brought the entire cocktail together was quite surprising: salt.
Lemon Shrub Martini
1 3/4 ounces gin
1 1/4 ounces manzanilla sherry
1/2 ounce Meyer lemon shrub
1 dash Bitter Truth Creole bitters
1 pinch salt
Combine ingredients with ice in a mixing glass. Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.
Notes on Ingredients: I used Oxley gin and Lustau manzanilla sherry.
Every time I started thinking about how to use the grapefruit shrub, the Hemingway daiquiri kept popping up in my mind. The combination of lime, grapefruit and rum has always been a winner. Finding a way to balance out all of that acidity, however, would be the challenge. Well, that is besides figuring out how to deal with that pesky maraschino liqueur that is so crucial to the Hemingway. In the end, I decided to keep it simple and just omitted the maraschino altogether. Instead, I found that the more neutral simple syrup smoothed out all of the citrus and vinegar. The more basic daiquiri recipe allowed the shrub to shine, and the resulting beverage was interesting and refreshing. Again, salt really pulled the drink together and pushed the flavors to the hilt.
1 1/2 ounce white rum
3/4 ounce lime juice
1/2 ounce grapefruit shrub
1/2 ounce simple syrup
1 pinch salt
Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Notes on Ingredients: I used Cruzan white rum and a homemade 1:1 simple syrup.
The Mistake--Or, Two Shrubs in One Glass
Considering that even finding a recipe for a vinegar-based citrus shrub proved nearly impossible, I was skeptical of using the Internet--where I usually begin all my searches--to locate an appropriate cocktail recipe. For the most part my assumptions were correct, though I did find one. Earlier this year in Aspen, Colorado, a certain Nathan Harnish from Pacifica Restaurant and Oyster Bar won the Aspen, Colorado, Iron Bartender competition with a drink that included both lemon shrub and grapefruit shrub. Or at least that is what i thought. How providential it seemed at the time! Taking in the recipe as a whole, though, I was even further astounded. It was the strangest assortment of flavors I had ever seen. Of course I had to try it.
Spice Trader Punch (as reported by eatApsen.com localFeast and then further adapted)
2 ounces Batavia arrack
3/4 ounce Grand Marnier
3/4 ounce cognac
3/4 ounce meyer lemon shrub
3/4 ounce grapefruit shrub
Combine ingredients with ice in a mixing glass. Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Notes on Ingredients: I used Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac and Batava Arrack von Oosten.
real recipe is an actual punch, complete with juice and tea. And though Harnish's original recipe does include a grapefruit element and a lemon shrub, he calls for grapefruit juice and a non-vinegar based lemon shrub. The website I initially stumbled onto was just offering a sneak peak of the contest entries, so this mistake is of little consequence in the grand scheme. But that mistaken recipe resulted in a drink that was not only delicious but also multilayered, interesting and exceptionally balanced. Go figure. Sometimes using homemade ingredients can lead you to unexpected experiences.