In Kris Wessel’s version of a margarita, one particular ingredient may at first seem rather unorthodox. Sure, there’s tequila and some Cointreau for triple sec, but noticeably absent is any lemon or lime juice. In its place, Wessel—the James Beard-nominated executive chef/owner of Red Light on Miami’s Little River and chef/partner of the new Florida Cookery at The James Royal Palm— has prepared a mango shrub. This one is a tangy mix of dehydrated Ataulfo mango slices soused for more than a month in distilled vinegar with bits of peppercorn and a bay leaf. (The drink will be available at Florida Cookery.)
“Overly sugary drinks of the ’90s, like melon ball martinis, have no substance,” he says. “Connoisseurs don’t want cloying sweetness. They want to taste the subtleties, and as cocktail culture now vies for authenticity and savory flavors again, vinegar is a perfect balancing element.”
Shrubs go back to the American pioneers of the 18th century, who used vinegar as an acid to preserve fruits before there was refrigeration. Cannily, they added sugar and water, and hence created an invigorating beverage (eventually adding liquor for extra oomph). Citrus, as an acidic component, is direct and sharp, while vinegar is well-rounded and has more depth, harmonizing the characters of other ingredients. This is why bartenders across the country have been drawn to shrubs. The trend has already manifested itself in cities such as New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans, and it’s beginning to appear in Miami venues as well.
At The Dutch in the W South Beach, head bartender Robert Ferrara makes a drink called Southern Exposure, with gin, simple syrup, egg white, raspberry shrub, and club soda. He especially loves shrubs because of their long shelf life and how they absorb the flavor of whatever you’re infusing: “When you’re doing cocktails with vinegar, you shouldn’t have too many ingredients because you don’t want to mask the actual shrub.” He also has a vinegar shrub (with tarragon, grapefruit peel/zest, local raspberries, apple cider vinegar, and a touch of sugar), which can be used as a mixer.
Edwin Mendez, director of food and beverage at the Mayfair Hotel & Spa in Coconut Grove, has started to incorporate shrubs into his cocktails and has been testing the local market’s reaction to drinks with just vinegar (including ones with apple cider and pomegranate Champagne vinegars). “We’ve been doing tastings, and so far 90 percent have had a positive response,” he says, adding a caveat: “But when making any vinegar-based cocktail, you really need to watch the amount you add. If you put in too much, it becomes a nightmare, and the drink is ruined.”
Still, vinegar is becoming the acid of choice for discerning cocktail innovators. As John Verrochi, bartender/mixologist at the Shore Club, puts it, “Vinegar is more versatile, but it’s also more delicate. It’s mixology on a graduate level: You need to be able to finesse it in—it’s like acid prime.”
The key ingredient in Last Summer’s Dried Mango Vinegar Margarita, from chef Kris Wessel, is a mango shrub (ABOVE, in the jar), prepared with Ataulfo mango, bay leaves, peppercorns, and vinegar