By Justine Sterling, Assistant Digital Editor, Food & Wine
Vinegar doesn’t jump to mind as a cocktail mixer, but when the tangy, bracing tonic is macerated with fresh fruit and sugar, it becomes a bartender’s favorite: a shrub. Buzzy chef Andy Ricker loves "drinking vinegars" so much that he makes and markets his own under the label Som. Now with five restaurants in New York and Portland, Oregon, including Pok Pok, Whiskey Soda Lounge and Pok Pok Ny (which just earned two stars from the New York Times), Ricker is garnering more attention for the beverages he first discovered while wandering Asian supermarkets.
The vinegars soon appeared on Pok Pok’s menu as both nonalcoholic drinks and in cocktails. Tired of clearing out market shelves, Ricker unveiled his own “shrub style” vinegars, made with palm or cane vinegar, which both have a clean, fruity taste.
His original vinegar cocktail -- the Apple Gin Rickey with apple vinegar, gin and soda -- is still on menus today. Newer additions include the Hunny (honey Som, tequila, fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice and lime) and the Lord Bergamot (honey Som, tea-infused vodka, orange liqueur and soda). In Ricker’s Portland restaurants, the Heat Ray represents his first foray into vegetable vinegars, combining a celery-flavored version with gin, chiles and lime juice.
In Asia, vinegar drinks are touted as weight loss tonics, but Ricker believes that large quantities of sugar invalidate the claim. He does appreciate the drinks as digestion aides. “If you eat a heavy meal and you drink one of these things with it, you don’t feel as bogged down,” says Ricker, who also lauds their multifaceted flavors. “You can boost the sweetness, you can boost the tartness, you can boost the fruit. It’s a perfect cocktail mixer.”
Parish Hall, Brooklyn, NY. Williamsburg’s locavore restaurant uses lemon verbena cider vinegar to brighten the herbaceous Pimm’s Cup 109A, a variation on the classic with Pimm’s No. 1, herbal Benedictine liqueur, celerylike lovage syrup, ginger ale and cucumber.
The Greenhouse Tavern, Cleveland. F&W Best New Chef 2010 Jonathan Sawyer makes vinegars in house with leftover wine and beer for cocktails like the sweet-and-sour Vodka Cranberry for the 21st century, which blends rosé vinegar with locally produced Watershed vodka and cranberry juice.
Room 11, Washington, DC. Bartender Jessica Woods uses tamarind-flavored Som in the Prodigal Sun, a sweet and spicy cocktail made with Demerara-sugar rum, allspice dram and kaffir lime falernum. “The tamarind drinking vinegar lends a sweetness that mirrors that rum,” Woods says. “But also a bitterness that contributes complexity and enough acidity to balance the drink.”
Drago Centro, Los Angeles. Bar manager Jaymee Mandeville built the American Cherub cocktail from the shrub up. Starting with a sweet-tart housemade strawberry shrub, she added Buffalo Trace bourbon, in part inspired to create a strawberry old-fashioned. “The shrub provides an acidity that isn’t as bitter as lemon or lime, yet lingers in the back of the throat, providing a sharp backdrop for the toasty bourbon,” Mandeville explains. To the strawberry-bourbon blend she adds the floral aperitif wine Lillet Rosé, fennel tincture and fresh cherry tomatoes for a light but complex summer cocktail.