Long before the days of refrigeration, people preserved food through whatever methods they had available. Meat was smoked, salted or dried; vegetables were canned or stored in root cellars. Fruit was often soaked in a mixture of vinegar and sugar. While the goal was to be able to consume berries and stone fruit into the winter, it wasn’t long before people figured out that the sweet and sour juice was pretty tasty too. They started using it in cocktails, mocktails, cooking and baking.
That juice is known as a shrub or drinking vinegar, and it’s making a big comeback in the United States. Oregon has several small-batch producers who are manufacturing the mixers with local and seasonal fruits and herbs.
Lola’s Fruit Shrubs, Eugene
Molly Rogers started making shrubs in pursuit of the perfect margarita. No matter where she looked, she couldn’t find a good, tart mixer for them. Then she remembered the shrubs her grandmother used to make when Rogers was a child. She started experimenting with a lime version and immediately knew she was on to something. She started manufacturing shrubs en masse in 2013.
Lola’s Fruit Shrub makes three mixers year-round at their Eugene facility: lime, fennel and lemon, and orange. There are also a number of seasonal offerings, including strawberry balsamic, elderberry ginger, blackberry basil, cinnamon peach, vanilla pear, quince, and cranberry and salt.
Rogers sources the citrus juice from Columbia Gorge Organic. Everything else comes from farms around Eugene. “We make an organic product and get local fruit,” she says. “Sustainable agriculture is really important to our company.” So is giving back; a portion of the Lola’s Fruit Shrubs’ profits are donated to local nonprofits, including Mobility International.
“Shrubs make a great cocktail, and that’s what most people are doing with them,” Rogers says. But there are so many other ways to use them. Try mixing them with sparkling water for homemade sodas, or use them in cooking. The lime makes a great fajita marinade. The strawberry with balsamic is outstanding in homemade salad dressing.
Find Lola’s Fruit Shrubs in Eugene at the Kiva, Marché Provisions, Capella Market, Whole Foods and various liquor stores; and in Portland at Fettle Botanic Supply and Vintage Vintage.
Sage & Sea Farms, Portland
Deb Tabor has fond memories of making shrubs with her great-aunt and uncle as a child. They’d make them with whatever fruit was in season and drink them instead of sodas. “About six years ago I noticed they were becoming popular in Asian restaurants,” she says. None of them were locally-produced, “and I thought, ‘Why are we not taking advantage of this amazing bounty of Oregon fruit here at home?’ So I started making them.” They were subsequently chosen as a food finalist in the 2014 Martha Stewart American Made Awards.
Sage & Sea Farms of Portland markets more than a dozen flavors: apple, apricot, citrus or blueberry with ginger; cranberry; dark cherry; grapefruit and black pepper; and golden raspberry. “Blackberry is probably my favorite,” Tabor says. “I absolutely love the flavor of real wild blackberries.” They’re hard to come by, but she’s coming close to getting the same flavor with a farmed variety called Chester.
“Everything is Oregon and Washington-grown except for the citrus and ginger,” Tabor says. “Everything is small-farm produced. All that’s in the bottle is fruit, vinegar and sugar.”
Beyond cocktails and mocktails, “Oregon shrubs make great dessert vinegars,” she says. Boil them into syrups and pour them over ice cream, yogurt and cheesecake.
Tabor has some advice for people who aren’t familiar with shrubs: “Don’t let yourself not try a sipping vinegar. So many people look at it and go, ‘It’s a vinegar. Why would you drink that?’ At least give it a shot. Once you put it in your mouth, you’ll understand.”
Shrubs from Sage & Sea Farms can be purchased on the company’s website.
The Original Shrub, Portland
Gwen Dickson, owner of Portland’s The Original Shrub, got her start the same way as thousands of other small food business owners. She regularly made shrubs in her home kitchen and gave them to friends and family members. Everyone raved about them and told her she could sell them. She heard that from so many people she finally decided they were right and launched her commercial enterprise.
Dickson hand-picks most of the fruit and herbs for her shrubs so she gets them at the peak of ripeness. Each ingredient is combined with vinegar and sugar to make the thick, syrupy liquid she remembers from her grandmother’s kitchen.
“There’s a lot that can be done with shrubs,” she says. “There’s baking and cooking and certainly mixing. They’re really versatile products.”
Although Dickson uses shrubs extensively at home, her customers come up with some of the most creative ways to cook with them, she says. “I have a lot of people who use them for finishing after they’ve grilled or sautéed vegetables, chicken or fish.” She often puts one to two tablespoons of a fruity shrub (such as raspberry, pineapple, cranberry clove or peach) in a pie instead of lemon juice.
Dickson likes the rosemary shrub in champagne or cocktails. The thyme and other herb shrubs are great in salad dressing, potato salad and for quick pickling. A customer recently told her they made a pineapple upside down cake with the basil shrub.
“I really want people to have fun with the product,” she says – and from all the recipe suggestions she gets, it seems shoppers are taking that message to heart.
Products from The Original Shrub are available online. Dickson also sells at the Beaverton Farmers Market and various shows in the Portland area.
Other notable Oregon shrub producers