Sipping the rose-pink iced strawberry and tarragon shrub at the Fermentation Bar at SHED in Healdsburg, California, I wonder what America’s pioneer farmers would have made of this modern interpretation of their thirst-quenching soft drink. The seltzer bubbles prickle my mouth, releasing pleasantly vinegary strawberry notes with a peppery hint of tarragon. It tastes of summer without the sweet sickliness of a soda pop.
Unlike an old-fashioned alcoholic British shrub – a fruit liqueur made with rum or brandy mixed with sugar and citrus fruit – its 19th-century American cousin was made by macerating (and heating when necessary) fruit in vinegar and sugar to make a tart syrup that was diluted and iced to create a refreshing soft drink. Forgotten for many years, shrubs have become part of a new trend that is sweeping the world of mixology and changing tastes. Sugary sweet drinks are being eschewed in favour of sharp, sometimes bitter and often herbal non-alcoholic fermented drinks. At innovative bars such as SHED, they are combined with home-made vinegars and flavoured herbs or spices to create flavours such as elderberry and basil, or pear and angelica seed.
Many credit Sandor Katz, a self-proclaimed “fermentation revivalist”, with seeding this renaissance. His first book, “Wild Fermentation”, persuaded people to make bright-flavoured vinegars, shrubs, keffirs (fermented milk drinks) – and kombuchas – fermented soft drinks fashionable for their supposed health-giving properties. Always open to new ideas, barmen started changing their customers’ palates by using vinegars in place of citrus juice and creating provocative new bitters for their alcoholic cocktails. Agostino Perrone, from the Connaught Bar in London, developed single-flavoured bitters such as cardamom and bergamot, to add a sophisticated flavour note to the Connaught’s gin or vodka dry martini.
It’s probably too soon to say whether this new attraction to old soft drinks is more than a seasonal fling. But I hope that they’re here to stay, for they are deliciousness in a glass.