Liqueurs, Shrubs, and Drinking Vinegars – Enhancing the Diner’s Experience

By Ross Perkins, Foodable Contributor

You saddle up to the bar and the bartender asks, “what will you be having tonight?” When picking out a drink, the first thing an imbiber usually considers is his or her liquor preference. Whiskey? Vodka? Or maybe tequila because tonight is going to be “one of those nights”? Once the liquor choice is locked down, then there are the additives to consider – sodas, syrups, and garnishes.

But there’s another group of flavor enhancers that are popping up in bars and restaurants around the country. Made for alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks alike, there is a movement where restaurants and bars make their own brands of shrubs to give the usual martini or gin & tonic a little flavor kick.

What is a Shrub?

There are two broad types of shrubs and their history goes back to the colonial era, when procuring well-preserved liquor was much more difficult than it is today. The first type of shrub is one that’s considered a fruit liqueur. One of the most popular types of this shrub is the limoncello. Using alcohol and fruit – most often a citrus – these liqueurs could be drunk all by themselves. Sometime they were added to other beverages to make them a whole lot better because all-too-often alcoholic shipments would go bad for a variety of reasons.

The second category of a shrub is known as a drinking vinegar. This type was usually a vinegar-based syrup that was sweetened with fruit, but also sometimes herbs and spices. It would serve the same purpose as the liqueur, but the taste would have a noticeable vinegar bite to it.

Shrubs Can Be Made Local But Still Go National

Sign from Shaw's Thally | Ross Perkins 

Sign from Shaw's Thally | Ross Perkins 

Because every eatery is looking to distinguish itself for the crowd, enhancing the cocktail program is a great way to get drinkers in the door and keep them there for a while. In Washington, DC, several restaurants are putting their own spins on the shrubs they add to their drinks, including Shaw’s Thally. One of the co-owners, Sherman Outhouk showcases his bar-tending background and makes a selection of drink additions that go beyond the usual limoncello. The restaurant also carries orange, tangerine, grapefruit, and blood orange cellos. At Rose’s Luxury – recently named the “Best New Restaurant” by Bon Appetite Magazine, one of its former servers operates Lindera Farms Vinegars, which creates artisanal vinegars that are not only ideal for bartenders and restaurateurs, but can also be found on store shelves in the area.

And when buying local ingredients, this includes not just produce, but also spirits, meats, cheeses, and beer, getting the shrubs from a local purveyor is ideal if localism is one of the business tenets. Also in the DC area, Don Ciccio & Figli is a local liqueur company that brings the Almafi Coast to restaurants and retailers in this area and beyond, including Chicago, New Orleans, and Brooklyn. But there are liqueur makers in pretty much every state. Surprisingly, when it comes to the fan favorite limoncello, West Virginia is arguably one of the best places to get your hands on the best stuff.

National Brands Embrace Shrubs

And just as many trends start at the bottom at mom-and-pop outlets and move up to the big boys, making in-house shrubs is influencing bar programs and menus. Carrabba’s Italian Grill is a national chain that prides itself on its Sicilian roots. And to stick with its Mediterranean influence, the restaurant has a house-brand limoncello using lemons and Absolut Citron. Another national restaurant with Italian influences –  Maggiano’s – has shrubs on its menu, such as passion fruit liqueur. And Olive Garden, while not making its own shrubs, uses limoncello in its Long Island Limoncello cocktail.

But the trend with the national brands stops short of including the wide variety of sweet, sour, and bitter flavors found in many liqueurs and shrubs. Right now, the most pervasive shrub diners will see on a national menu is limoncello. It will probably take some time for more adventurous flavors to start appearing on menus across the country. But all it’ll take are more requests from diners for more flavorful additives in their drinks and their desserts.