Farm-to-Glass Cocktails with Flavorful Shrubs and Bitters

Marianne Courville in her test kitchen

These shrubs are not the ones you plant around your front porch. Today’s shrubs and bitters are the ingredients that are shaking up the craft of cocktail mixology. At The Hudson Standard, co-owner and artisanal crafter of shrubs and bitters, Marianne Courville, has created new flavors using delicious blends of locally sourced ingredients and gleaning tips from recipes of colonial and ancient times. She aims to have The Hudson Standard raise the quality of small batch cocktail bitters and syrups by featuring the pure flavors of the Hudson Valley.

You all know bitters, mostly angostura, but what is a shrub? It’s the revival of vinegar-based drinks that originated in England. There are two types of shrubs: those that are fruit preserves made with vinegar and mixed with club soda and the fruit cordial or liqueur made with undistilled alcohol.

In a bit of history about the shrub, the American version of the shrub has its origins in 17th century England where vinegar was used as an alternative to citrus juices in the preservation of berries and other fruits for the off-season. Fruit preserves made in this fashion were themselves known as shrubs and the practice carried over to colonial America. By the 19th century, typical American recipes for shrubs used vinegar poured over fruit—traditionally berries—which was left to infuse anywhere from overnight up to several days; afterward the fruit would be strained out and the remaining liquid would be mixed with a sweetener such as sugar or honey and then reduced to make a syrup. Basically, it’s a tangy yet sweet tonic mixed with macerated fruit and sugar.

The sweet-and-sour syrup could be mixed with either water or soda water and served as a soft drink, or it could be used as a mixer in alcoholic cocktails. Shrubs eventually fell out of popularity with the advent of home refrigeration.

Courville’s interest in learning more about shrubs piqued in 2012 with the trend and renewed interest in the serving of vinegar-based shrub drinks in American restaurants and bars. The acidity of shrubs made it perfect as an aperitif or as an alternative to bitters in a cocktail.

In 2014, The Hudson Standard was born after achieving its funding goals through Kickstarter. Marianne Courville, co-owner with her husband Michael Albin of Hudson Wine Merchants and friend/investor Michael Maness, realizing how hot the trend for hand-crafted bitters was in the West, had diligently been doing their homework by researching bitters and shrubs. Knowing shrubs were perfect for using locally sourced ingredients, Courville started experimenting with a variety of flavors creating unusual and delicious blends. In late 2013 she created her first batch – a pear honey ginger shrub using young ginger and pears from local farms and ginger bitters. In about four weeks, the shrub was ready to be tested and tasted. The result was a successful blend of sweet, tart and tangy; the Pear Ginger Shrub and Ginger Bitters quickly sold out.

For her shrubs, Courville uses apple cider vinegar, which she gets from an orchard in the Finger Lakes (where she also gets her grain alcohol for her bitters) due to the large quantity she needs. She obtains her apples and pears from what she calls “orphaned” orchards where it’s pick-your-own and the fruits are not sprayed. The shrubs extract their flavors by infusing fruits in vinegar and then sit from 10 days to two weeks. Her first retail batches in 2014 were: Strawberry Rhubarb, Apple Coriander Maple, Pear Ginger, a citrusy Spruce Shoots Bitters, Ginger Bitters and Hudson Valley Celery Bitters – all handcrafted with natural and sustainable ingredients

Her 2015 production includes a new shrub, Cassis Berry Shrub, which combines black currants, blackberries, vinegar and organic sugar ~ a blend of sweetly layered tartness with hints of chocolate and jam; and Love Struck Bitters, inspired by an ancient Roman aphrodisiac made from hyssop, thyme, peppercorn and gingers. These bitters are aromatic, spicy and hot ~ guaranteed to complement any drink. Courville suggests using Cassis Berry Shrub with any beverage – water, soda, mixed with Prosecco or any liquor (It also makes a great duck sauce!). For an irresistible late-night snack, try a few dashes of Love-Struck Bitters with cherries that have been soaked in brandy. That will surely set the mood.

Bottles come in two sizes: 100 ml for bitters is $22 in a small square-shaped amber bottle; shrubs come in a new 16 oz. round brown bottle for $22. The attractive amber bottles have a simple village outline drawing created by local Hudson artist/graphic designer John Isaacs, whose drawing in his words, are without “gratuitous embellishment.” It is an eye-catching graphic design. You can purchase these shrubs and bitters by visiting http://thehudsonstandard.com/shop/.

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Margaret was public relations director for two luxury New York City hotels, where she did extensive research into America’s culinary heritage. She is a founding member of The James Beard Foundation; formerly, owner of a Jersey Shore inn and restaurant, The Pelican Bistro, recognized as one of the 10 Best New Restaurants in NJ by New Jersey Monthly, and a PR consultant to restaurateurs. For the past several years she has been a contributing writer about food, drink and restaurant news for many publications. She is a passionate cook and wine lover who moved to the Hudson Valley and is in awe of the immense wealth of agricultural, artisanal and culinary talent in the area. Connect with her at www.TastefulLiving.net, Hudson Valley Wine & Restaurant Examiner and Shore Region Food & Restaurant Examiner. She can be reached at mmorgan531@gmail.com.

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