Drinking vinegars aren't exactly a new invention; they date back at least several hundred years. And they're not just for the bourgeois—just ask your local dive bar regular, where pickle-back shots have become trendy. But even so, now some cocktail mavens are using various vinegars to make shrubs, gastriques, sours, and other puckered potables.
"People have been sick of sweet drinks for awhile," says Kelley Slagle, a cocktail consultant at Cocktail Kingdom who will show off her potent power at this year's International Chefs Congress. "I started using vinegars and shrubs [at Hearth and Terroir] because I wanted to preserve fruit." Slagle (and other mixologists using the tart stuff) might as well be a modern-day Thomas Jefferson; back in the 1700s, drinking vinegars were a hot item among colonials, who drank shrubs and other pickled drinks to ease their bilious stomachs.
Pioneering mixologists are not just taking pages from old cocktail cookbooks, however; they're following the lead of several chefs, trying out new flavors and attempting to mystify with should-be-sweeter sours, tricking (and delighting) drinkers' taste buds.
Not all vinegars are created equal, though, at least when it comes to the careful composition of Slagle's cocktails. "You need to choose your vinegars wisely," she says. "You can't use balsamic because it messes with the caramelization of the gastrique." But we're willing to bet a balsamic-gastrique-infused shrub is not too far away.
In Asia drinking vinegars have been around for far longer. The liquids regained popularity State side thanks in part to Chef Andy Ricker's Pok Pok, which started bottling its own drinking vinegars, including aquavit- and tamarind-flavored versions, in 2005. (Pok Pok Som is more of a retail item, though, to be mixed directly into club soda and water, not necessarily for bartenders who are conjuring their own cocktails.)
"It's fun to do flavors that people consider sweet, to kind of twist their expectations," Slagle says. Think strawberry, blueberry, and cherry vinegars. Or Concord grape, which she uses to brighten up one of her shrubs and is easily one of the most refreshing drinks we've had in a while (though our delight was no doubt partly due to the fact that we drank it on a particularly muggy, swampy day).
To make a house-made beer vinegar, for example, Slagle uses a cider "mother" (the result is a softer and more palatable vinegar than many others). Ciders and craft beers that have higher alcohol content are often the best for vinegar making, Slagle says, because of their higher alcohol content. "The alcohol content is just right, about 8 percent to 10 percent, and the acidity isn't too high or too low, about 4 percent or 5 percent. You get more of the fruit and spice in the vinegar that way." Slagle stores her house-made vinegars in her home in upstate New York, using a straw to aerate the liquid more efficiently.
Not all mixologists have the luxury (or time) to create their own vinegars, which is why some turn to pre-made concentrates and vinegars to spruce up their own shrubs. Slagle uses a white-wine vinegar for the gastrique in her Mark Antony, which is at once silky and slightly sour, a late-summer refresco. The gastrique—a mix of Chardonnay vinegar, cardamom, vodka, and orange juice—tastes like the spicy, tangy progeny of molasses and rhubarb. It's easy to imagine it sitting on a rickety porch, sweaty brow and a slight scowl, reluctantly telling us to come in from the heat for a spell. Don't mind if we do.