As life slowly returns to some semblance of what it was like in 'before times', I've been thinking back over the past year. Most of it was pretty awful thanks to the pandemic, but there were a few bright spots. The Chopping Block launched our virtual programming, and we've definitely learned a lot about teaching you via Zoom. Being a part of our virtual classes has reinvigorated my love for cooking and vastly improved my cocktail-making skills.
My at-home cocktails used to consist of very simple drinks with few ingredients. Think Rum and Coke, Mojito, Moscow Mule, etc. If I was feeling fancy, I'd make a Margarita with fresh squeezed lime juice and homemade simple syrup. But I used to reserve cocktail drinking for going out with friends, as my drink of choice at home is always a glass of rosé on my deck. Remove the going out to dinner and drinks with friends, and that makes for a pretty boring summer.
I made due with getting to-go cocktails from my favorite restaurants and bars that needed support. Being from Louisiana, I'm familiar with to-go cocktails, though they are usually in the form of daiquiris.
Now that I live in Florida, during quarantine I was especially missing a Bushwhacker. If you've never heard of this drink, it's a creamy, chocolate adult milkshake usually topped with a Bacardi 151 floater. I got a half-gallon of Bushwhacker from Casino Beach Bar and Grille on Pensacola Beach and since this is a rich drink (i.e. dessert), it lasted quite a while in my freezer.
After moderating a few virtual cocktail classes with The Chopping Block's Spirits Expert Christophe Bakunas, I learned what equipment and essential spirits I needed to stock a home bar, and I went to work.
Moderating a virtual cocktail class - it's a tough job, but someone has to do it!
I've learned when it's worth splurging on a bottle of quality liquor as well as what spirits are the most versatile. I know which tools are essential to have a solid home bar such as a shaker, Hawthorne strainer, muddler and bar spoon. My favorite pandemic cocktail purchase is this Oxo steel angled measuring jigger. You can see the amount of liquid as you pour it!
Christophe not only knows everything about spirits and how to craft a delicious and perfectly balanced cocktail, he is a total history buff. So you not only get mixology information in his classes, you get the kind of history I'm interested in - the history of drinks!
Cocktail night at home now
I've loved all of our virtual cocktail classes, but one of my favorites was our first vodka-focused class last summer, because it introduced me to the world of shrubs.
What is a Shrub?
Shrubs, also known as drinking vinegars, go back to the 15th century in England as a way to utilize fruit before it spoiled. The British Navy was famous for making shrubs. They thought they would ward off evil spirits and at the same time, combat scurvy. Unfortunately, scurvy is affected by citric acid which is found in limes, lemons, and other citrus, not acetic acid which is found in vinegar. Although a shrub neither helped with evil spirits or scurvy, what these sailors did create was a delicious drink that is still popular today.
A shrub is a concentrated syrup that combines fruit, sugar and vinegar. Apple cider vinegar is most commonly used, but you can certainly experiment with other types of vinegar. Herbs and spices are often added to create different flavor combinations. You can use this sweet and sour mixer with still water, sparkling water or in cocktails.
Shrubs are an absolute godsend for non-drinkers because they mimic an end of the flavor spectrum that most non-alcoholic drinks don't -- they're refreshingly bitter and sour. You can just add some soda water to a shrub and have a delicious refreshing non-alcoholic drink for summer!
You can buy premade shrubs or make them yourself. Homemade shrubs are inexpensive and let you explore different flavor possibilities to create custom drinks.
Making a shrub takes some time, but it's very simple to do. First, you start with fruit which is at its cheapest at the height of the season, so buy a bunch of it and let it get really ripe. Chop the fruit up, add sugar, flavorings and eventually vinegar. After the fruit does its job of flavoring the shrub, don't discard it! Use it as a topping on waffles, pancakes, ice cream or ricotta cheese.
Put your new-found shrub knowledge to work by making this strawberry shrub cocktail from Christophe.
Strawberry Shrub Cocktail
Yield: 1 drink
Active time: 30 minutes
Start to finish: 2 hours, 30 minutes
For the strawberry shrub:
1 pound overripe strawberries
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 spent fresh vanilla pod
For the build:
2 ounces vodka
2 ounces strawberry shrub (sub: 1-ounce Framboise Liqueur and .75 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice)
Ice as needed
Fresh strawberry slices
1. To make the shrub, rough chop the strawberries and place them in a container with an airtight lid. Pour the sugar over the top, cover with the lid, and refrigerate for two days. Give it a shake every once in a while.
2. Set a fine sieve over a bowl, and pour the contents of the container into the sieve making sure to leave the residual sugar behind.
3. Discard the fruit pieces (or use as described above), and pour the extracted fruit juices from the bowl back into the container with the residual sugar.
4. Add the vinegar, whisk well, and strain into a clean mason jar. Add the vanilla pod. Note: You can use this right away or store it in the refrigerator for several days for the flavors to combine and develop. If air tight, your shrub will last for a month in the refrigerator.
5. To build the cocktail, combine the vodka and shrub in your shaker, and fill with ice. Shake until very chilled, and strain into a rocks or Collins glass filled with ice.
6. Add sparkling water to fill, garnish with fresh strawberry slices, and enjoy one of the best summer cocktails!
• Optional flavor additions for your shrub are fresh herbs such as basil, cracked pepper, lemon rind without pith or a dash of balsamic vinegar.
If you want to have a fun night at home, learning about cocktails and how to balance flavors as well as the history behind them, check out one of our upcoming virtual cocktail classes:
- Summer Vodka Party Friday, May 28 5pm CST
- Sweet vs Sour: How to Customize Cocktails Saturday, June 12 5pm CST
- Sparkling Cocktails Saturday, June 26 5pm CST
- Most Refreshing Summertime Cocktails, Ever Saturday, July 17 5pm CST
- Tiki Drinks Saturday, July 31 5pm CST