To keep cocktail lists current, progressive mixologists are looking to the past, resurrecting old-fashioned mixers and modifiers with modern twists. With bitter and sour flavors trending on drink menus, bitter liqueurs—a few of which date back to medieval times—and shrubs—fruity vinegar-based syrups from the colonial era—are prime muses. Both can offer service and business advantages.
Collectively known as amari, the Italian word for bitter, these intensely flavored liqueurs are made all over Europe and in America. The spirits are compounded with herbs, roots, barks and other botanicals, often from secret formulas handed down by ancient monastic orders.
Danny Shapiro, co-owner and bar manager of Scofflaw in Chicago, uses amari (aka potable bitters) in many cocktails. He and his staff prefer to mix with potable bitters over tinctured bitters (highly concentrated flavorings) because they are measured in ounces rather than dashes, which makes for a better and more consistently executed cocktail. “In terms of flavor and precise levels of bitterness, amari presents a key to cocktails that I hadn’t known before,” says Shapiro. A new drink on Scofflaw’s menu incorporates two amari: The Pinetopper is a blend of gin, triple sec and the bitters herbsaint and malört ($9).
At Scofflaw, malört is so popular, it’s offered on tap. “Malört is a nod to our roots, to the city,” says Shapiro. First distilled in Chicago in the early 1900s, malört translates as “wormwood.” “Shots of malört are a ritual at Scofflaw,” Shapiro says. Guests will buy uninitiated friends a shot just to watch them grimace. At $3 a shot, he sells a lot; margins are thin, but the bar makes it up in volume. And, says Shapiro, “Having malört on tap allows us to serve that volume efficiently.”
“Shrubs are a way to capture fruit in season and bring those flavors to other parts of the year,” says Larry Piaskowy, bar manager at The Alembic Bar in San Francisco. The vinegar-based fruit infusions add acidity to cocktails, he says, along with viscosity and a bit of sweetness. “I’ll use a shrub in place of lemon or lime juice and simple syrup,” says Piaskowy. The best-selling Sunset Scavenger Hunt ($12), uses a housemade persimmon shrub spiced with star anise and peppercorns.
“Making shrubs allows me to carry over savory flavors from the kitchen into cocktails,” he says. As a bonus, leftover, overripe or misshapen fruits can be used in these tart macerations. Piaskowy recently made a fig-tarragon shrub from fruit given away as unsalable by a produce company.
As a nonalcoholic option, Piaskowy turns shrubs into healthier housemade sodas. He uses organic fruit, less sugar and none of the additives found in commercial soft drinks. “These sodas are better for you, less sweet and better tasting,” he says.
The vividly colored display of bottled shrubs on The Alembic’s backbar piques guests’ curiosity. “They ask ‘What’s that?’ ‘What’s a shrub?’ and that interaction with the bartender can spur ‘me too’ sales,” says Piaskowy.