If you consider a cheese plate, it’s easy to see why shrubs, also known as drinking vinegars, are a natural match for curds: The same flavors found in traditional accompaniments—tart and earthy pickles and olives, delicately sweet jams—define the thirst-quencher, made from juice combined with sugar and vinegar. Think outside the fruit bowl and craft drinking vinegar from succulent berries, citrus, and tomatoes, or savory, spicy, earthy produce such as ginger, celery, beet, hot pepper, and tamarind (see our quick and easy recipe below).
Originating more than a thousand years ago in the Middle East, shrubs were later discovered by European traders in the 16th century and tweaked to incorporate local fruit flavors and sometimes rum or brandy. Whereas citrus was traditionally used to preserve the fruit and prevent spoilage and waste, vinegar entered the picture in Colonial America, home to nary a lemon or lime tree. Though shrubs never completely disappeared, they sunk into obscurity, thanks in part to the rise of soda in the early 20th century. The cocktail renaissance of the last 15 years, however, has boosted their popularity as bartenders use them as mixers. Although bottled commercial options are available, drinking vinegars are easy to make at home. Either way, try pairing shrubs with cheese for maximum enjoyment.
A simple concoction of shredded apples, cider vinegar, and sugar, this crisp, fruity sipper is made for sweater weather. Throw it back with a flaky, aged gouda—the shrub will enhance the nutty flavors and buttery texture of the cheese. The drink also balances a well-aged Parmigiano Reggiano’s saltiness and makes the wedge taste a tad tangy.
Beemster Aged + apple shrub
Parmigiano Reggiano PDO + apple shrub
Creamy cheese goes quite well with citrus shrubs. Grapefruit, Meyer lemon, or blood orange tipples are fine, but lemon-lime is divine. A firm triple cream, such as Creama Kasa from Wisconsin’s Carr Valley Cheese Company, brings out the bright, zesty notes of the fruit, while the quaff tames the wedge’s rich mouthfeel. Soft-ripened chèvre is also a hit with this Sprite-like drinking vinegar—the sweet-tart shrub not only enhances the cheese’s buttermilk notes but also takes the edge off the mushroomy rind.
Carr Valley Cheese Company Creama Kasa + lemon-lime shrub
Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog + lemon-lime shrub
For a zingy treat with a bit of heat, grab this shrub—sugar and vinegar tame ginger’s bite, making it downright docile around mellow and strong cheeses alike. On one end of the spectrum, ginger and easy-going, spreadable mascarpone—with fresh peach slices for dipping—is delightful. For more oomph, turn to double-cream blue, equal parts milky richness and tangy funk. Saint Agur is a top pick: It enhances the peppery-sweet shrub. In turn, the vinegar cuts the fat.
BelGioioso Cheese Mascarpone + ginger shrub
Bongrain Cheese USA Saint Agur + ginger shrub
Pucker Up: Make Your Own Shrubs
Choose a base fruit—anything you want. Slice it up and mix 2 parts fruit with 1 part sugar. Refrigerate the mixture overnight in a sealed container. In the morning, strain it over a bowl or glass jar to collect the juice. Discard solids. Add 1 part vinegar to the juice and transfer mixture to a glass bottle or jar (if not in one already). The shrub should keep, refrigerated, up to a year.
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