From grenadine to orgeat, the history of mixology has seen no shortage of ingredients transition from little known to trending. The latest to come to the fore is vinegar. Surprisingly, the acidic solution has made its way from kitchen cabinets to mixing glasses in imaginative and inventive ways.
The most recent viral phenomenon stars one of the most widely used kitchen staples: balsamic vinegar. Known as “Healthy Coke” — a drink with a similar taste to Coca-Cola and made from balsamic vinegar, ice, and sparkling water — the trend began on TikTok and has racked up millions of views. Although this drink is non-alcoholic it does tie into the rising popularity of vinegar on the bar scene.
Long predating TikTok was the shrub trend, which centered around a sweetened vinegar-based syrup. Rather than stealing the limelight of 60-second videos, shrubs typically played a supporting role in cocktails — boosting the flavor and acidity of mixed drinks. But these days, shrubs and other “drinking vinegars” are becoming the stars of the show, with bartenders crafting cocktails around them.
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Shrubs have really bolstered the vinegar movement, says mixologist Mariena Mercer Boarini of Casa Playa at Wynn Las Vegas. “Creatively, I love using Champagne or apple cider vinegars, but I also like to get funky with balsamic, or flavors like lemon verbena white wine vinegar,” she says. Through her bar’s cocktail program, Mercer Boarini showcases Champagne vinegar via interesting shrubs, each of which stars in its own cocktail.
Working with such a potent ingredient does present some challenges, however. “I prefer to add the vinegar during the process of simmering the ingredients,” she says, “as it will cook out any overly pungent aromas that are sometimes associated with vinegar.” Her method, though meticulous, ensures punchiness and bright acidity are preserved while eliminating overpowering aromas.
As the star of the drink, it’s important to understand just how much acidity the vinegar of choice will bring. Most contain anywhere from 5 to 8 percent acetic acid by volume, which makes them incredibly adept at providing balance in a cocktail. And as budding home mixologists well know, acidity is a much-needed element in stabilizing flavors. However, what makes this ingredient so unique is its ability to also deliver explosive flavors. “Adding different types of vinegar will add a punchiness and nuance that citrus will not do on its own,” Mercer Boarini says.
Based in Raleigh, N.C., Horball’s crafts several unique, commercially available “drinking vinegars” made with cocktail enthusiasts in mind. The brand’s offerings range from sweet to spiced and savory. Horball’s also offers a helpful user-friendly recipe guide to fully understand each ingredient’s flavor profile, and allow them to achieve balance in drinks. After all, who doesn’t want the vinegar component to “dance across your palate” in an interesting way, without being too overwhelming?
In neighboring South Carolina, at Sullivan’s Fish Camp, bar manager Jordan Moton elects a homemade strawberry shrub as the star of her Deck Hand cocktail. “A fruit-based vinegar adds acid but also cuts through the richness of certain spirits and liquors,” she notes. The production process is also fairly easy and often economical. “For our strawberry shrub, we first make a strawberry syrup and allow it to sit at room temperature overnight before adding a house-made strawberry vinegar, and finally a salt solution,” she says.
Whether mixed at a professional bar or at home, vinegar can unite the flavors of a cocktail in a quirky way. But exercising caution remains critical. “If you’re experimenting at home. I would start out [by] adding small amounts of vinegar,” Moton suggests. However, if you do accidentally add too much vinegar the acidity can be tamed by another kitchen staple — good ol’ sodium chloride. Says Morton: “Salt and acid go hand in hand — and when it comes to cocktails it’s about balance!”
Casa Playa’s Temple of Doom
- 1 ½ ounces mezcal
- ¼ ounce Empirical Spirits Ayuuk
- ¼ ounce Giffard Caribbean Pineapple liqueur
- 1 ounce lime juice
- ½ ounce Grilled Pineapple Habanero Shrub
- 1 ounce pineapple juice
- Shake all ingredients with ice.
- Strain over fresh ice into a tiki glass.
- Garnish with pineapple fronds and/or a dehydrated pineapple chip.
Grilled Pineapple Habanero/Ancho Shrub
- 1 gallon simple syrup
- 1 pineapple (peeled and grilled)
- 4 habaneros
- 1 tablespoon ground ancho
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
- 1/2 cup Champagne vinegar
- 1 vanilla pod scraped
- Grill rings of pineapple and habaneros (quick char on the habaneros).
- Add all ingredients to a saucepan and bring ingredients to boil.
- Simmer for 20 min, let cool.