Properly Pickled: Vinegar in Cocktails

I’ve mentioned using vinegar in cocktails before, and it remains a pretty prevalent trend. Most often you see these cocktails described as containing a shrub, but sometimes the menu will come right out and list vinegar as an ingredient. This may keep the weak-of-heart at bay, but it is a time-honored and chemically sound approach to brightening a libation.

At Tales of the Cocktail this year, an entire 90-minute seminar was dedicated to the use of this soured wine by-product, and although the first cocktail they served us was offensively sour for a Saturday morning, I got over it and got a lot from the discussion. Sorry there aren’t better photos, but it was an hour and a half of PowerPoint.

There are several examples of vinegar drinks in cocktail history far predating the modern mixology trend. Almost 500 years BC, the Greeks were drinking Oxymel, a mix of vinegar, honey and water, which was still being consumed in Rome by Pliny the Elder half a millenium later with a little coriander and a new name, Posca. Even early American settlers were tempering their rum with apple cider vinegar and molasses, and calling it a Switchel.

Essentially, a cocktail without acidity will be flabby, backboneless swill, which is why most drinks include citrus, but lemons and limes can get old after a while (both literally and figuratively), so vinegar is an awesome alternative.

Unlike citric acid in lemon, lime or orange juice, or the malic acid from grapes or apples that might be found in an ingredient like cider, the tartness of Vinegar comes from acetic acid that is also a great appetite suppressant (perhaps to be avoided if you run a restaurant’s bar), and is thought to have a variety of other health benefits.

How to use vinegar in your cocktails:

1. Straight from the bottle (based on molecular weight 1 oz lemon juice can be replaced with ⅓ oz vinegar).
2. Create a shrub by macerating fruit in vinegar for a week or two.
3. Cook up a gastrique, like a shrub, but simmered down to a thicker consistency, and generally sweeter .
4. Kombucha is created by the same process as vinegar, from sweet tea instead of fruit, and is available in a variety of flavors.
5. Make a tincture using vinegar in place of alcohol. The solvent power of acetic acid leeches the flavor from herbs and spices quite well. We used a white vinegar fennel tincture and a balsamic cacao tincture in seminar.

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