Three shrub cocktails (left to right) from L'Etage, Nellcote and… (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye )
As colonial kitchen tricks such as pickling and canning come back into vogue, it's no wonder preserved fruits and veggies have hit the cocktail world. Exhibit A is this year's drink of spring: the shrub. No, it's not an herb or a leafy plant; it's a vinegar-based ingredient that more bartenders are making in-house and pairing with diverse spirits from gin to shochu to bourbon. "Shrubs were used back in the day when fruits and vegetables were much more seasonal than they are now," said Paul McGee, head bartender at RPM Italian, Bub City and forthcoming tiki bar Three Dots and a Dash. "You take the fruit or whatever flavor you want, add vinegar to it to pull out all the flavor and preserve it, like pickling. Then you add sugar to it afterward for sweetness." While vinegar in a drink might raise eyebrows, it doesn't taste as strange as it sounds. It adds tartness, but that's balanced by the sweetness of fruit and sugar and some savory flavors, too. Whatever your drink preference—fruity, fizzy, spicy or sweet—there's probably a shrub cocktail to suit you this season.
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Femme Fatale ($10) at L'Etage
5420 North Clark St., 2nd floor 773-334-9463
"It has beautiful flavor, but she'll sneak up on you," said L'Etage's bar director Nick Smith of naming his vodka-based drink. In keeping with the French leanings of L'Etage and downstairs sister restaurant Brasserie 54, the cocktail begins with Fair, a French vodka distilled from quinoa. Smith said the smoothness and slight sweetness of the vodka play against the acidity of his pear shrub, and a splash of pear brandy and sparkling wine keeps it light and fruity. Though he has no plans to take the shrub cocktail off the menu anytime soon—it's been one of the lounge's best sellers since opening March 1—he may switch up the cocktail's flavors during the summer to something like a pineapple shrub with coconut liqueur, finished with champagne for dryness. "Always end with champagne," he said. "I like everything topped off with bubbles."
Gin ($12) at Nellcote
833 W. Randolph St. 312-432-0500
The idea for Nellcote's cherry shrub-and-gin cocktail actually began in the kitchen. An enterprising chef was looking for ways to use the expensive ($200 per large can) marascas cherries that the restaurant bought for a foie gras dish, and approached head bartender Tim Williams with his first batch of cherry shrub. "It had a beautiful cherry flavor that ended with a vinegary bite," Williams said. "He asked me if he should make more, and I was like 'Do it. Do all of it.' " To preserve the taste of the sweet-tart cherries, Williams keeps the other ingredients simple, adding only Hendrick's gin, thyme syrup and a twist of lemon to the mix. Look for this cocktail to be served in carbonated, bottled form later this summer. "It's like the best cherry-thyme soda you've ever had—with gin in it."
Shrub-a-dub-dub ($13) at The Drawing Room
937 N. Rush St. 312-266-2694
If you want to try this subterranean cocktail mecca's vegetable shrub, you're going to have to trust the bartenders on duty. They begin with the house-made shrub, then create a "dealer's choice" custom concoction (usually with gin) for the customer. Chief mixologist Cristiana DeLucca enjoys pairing the current shrub, which is made with green apples, celery, root vegetables and herbs, with sweeter booze like fortified wines or green chartreuse that can stand up to its tang. "One of the things I love about a shrub is that it's a different kind of acidity," DeLucca said. "Vinegar falls on a different part of the pH scale than lemon or lime does, and it almost has a savory aspect. It makes you thirsty and it's refreshing at the same time." DeLucca looks forward to the abundance of summer produce, which will allow her to change the shrub's flavor as often as every other week.
Kono Hana at Belly Q ($11)
1400 W. Randolph St. 312-563-1010
Debuting early next week, the Kono Hana probably should be the first thing you order when you arrive at the Asian barbecue spot in the West Loop. Beverage manager Peter Vestinos designed this lighter, lower-alcohol cocktail to be the first of a night that might also include wine or beer at dinner and an after-dinner drink. "This cocktail doesn't hit you in the face with a lot of booze," Vestinos said. "It's meant for longer drinking experiences where the flavors develop slowly." These flavors include a slight sweetness from the mango-grapefruit-black peppercorn shrub, which is made with low-acidity coconut vinegar. Vestinos adds shochu, a Japanese liquor in this case distilled from sugar cane, as well as dry vermouth and a spray of peppermint mist. "The peppermint and tropic fruits have a nice aroma, a hint of something coming down the road," Vestinos said. "It's very much for springtime."
Bourbon Shrub ($11) at Elixir
3452 N. Halsted St. 773-975-9244