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Unlike the fever incited by the latest influx of American BBQ, Japanese junk food and every incarnation of doughnut, the micro-trend for drinking vinegars is likely to provoke scepticism. Yet the simple mix of fresh fruit, sugar and vinegar is creeping on to London menus, tying in with the revived interest in pickling and fermentation, and is gaining favour with health-conscious disciples of Sandor Katz and Michael Pollan.
Originally a way to preserve fruit, drinking vinegars, or “shrubs”, were popular in 17th-century England. Not to be confused with the fruit-infused rums created by smugglers to hide the taste of poor-quality spirits, traditional shrubs were made by macerating fruit with sugar before straining and adding vinegar. Steeping the fruit in vinegar and adding the sugar or honey afterwards was also a popular method.
Vinegar-based drinks have a long history. In the 2nd century BC, soldiers in the Roman army added date vinegar to water to make it safe to drink. Hippocrates prescribed apple cider vinegar mixed with honey for a variety of ills 200 years before that. Yet it was centuries later, in colonial America, that the shrub found its home. Long, hot summers were eased with the spritely mix of fruit vinegars and cool water. The advent of industrially processed foods and refrigeration caused this traditional drink to almost vanish, but a revival is under way.
In the Bay Area of California, shrubs are a popular ingredient in countless trendy bars, and come in every flavour imaginable – berries are a common base, with herbs and spices such as coriander, thyme and cinnamon added for depth. Inna Shrubs, Yum Yum Tonics and Happy Girl Kitchen have all bottled drinking vinegars for those who want to experiment at home, while BarJars provides jarred shrubs to bars. PokPok, a Thai restaurant in Portland and New York, is perhaps the most recognisable brand – it’s been serving Som drinking vinegars since 2005, in soft drinks and as a mixer in house cocktails.
In their simplest form, drinking vinegars can be added to water or soda to make a drink not dissimilar to homemade lemonade – tart and light. In London, Hawksmoor Spitalfields has used an orange and peach shrub in its Sherryzard (mixed with sherry, soda and a dash of orange bitters), and Worship Street Whistling Shop adds an unusual banana and clove vinegar to its Bread of Heaven cocktail. Rawduck in Hackney serves apple drinking vinegar with heather honey as a morning tonic, and is planning hot toddies for winter, when their fruit brightness revives and restores.
Miranda York is co-founder of eatdrinktoast.com