Try Vinegar in Your Cocktail

June 29 2012 - 3:30 PM

Some savory French dishes call for a sauce known as a gastrique that is made from caramelized sugar, vinegar and herbs or fruit. It’s easy to imagine how a drizzle of this over wild boar could punch up the dish with fresh, zippy flavors, but you might be surprised to hear it can fit well in cocktails, too.

Most people associate vinegar with a sour flavor, but when used in a gastrique, this sour sensation is offset by sweet sugar to form a balanced sauce. Sound familiar? In cocktails, we often pull the same trick, but by using citrus as our sour ingredient and then balancing with simple syrup or sweet liqueurs. A cocktail gastrique, then, can be thought of as just a fancy mixer.

There is variation in the terminology. In Southeast Asian cultures (especially Thailand), these gastriques are known as drinking vinegars and are diluted with sparkling water to make refreshing nonalcoholic sodas. Early American colonists were also fond of this style of drink, which they called shrub, partly out of necessity. Abundant fruit crops would be preserved in vinegar at times of bounty, and drunk with water, herbs and fresher fruit as garnish in times of scarcity. A slug of brandy might find its way in there too. Today’s barkeep might his creations any of the above.

Now that you (hopefully) are on board, let’s whip up something seasonal. It’s late June, and here in the Midwest that means cherry harvests are popping up in local markets. These bright red bounties will make the perfect flavoring for a cocktail gastrique.

Cherry-Balsamic Gastrique

1 cup sugar
1 cup balsamic vinegar
2 cups cherries (~ 30)
zest from one orange

  1. Mix the sugar with the vinegar and bring to just a simmer, stirring so the sugar fully dissolves. Add the cherries and zest, squishing the warm cherries with a wooden spoon to release flavor.
  2. Reduce the heat and let the gastrique thicken for about 15 minutes.
  3. Allow the syrup to cool and pour through a mesh strainer to separate out the skins and pits.
  4. Store the finished gastrique in a sealed bottle in the fridge. If you don’t plan to use the entire batch within a few days, add 1 oz vodka to lengthen the shelf life.

If you want to go the tasty, but nonalcoholic route, stop here; mix one part gastrique to 4 parts club soda or sparkling water and you’ll have a fancy, yet funky shrub perfect for sipping on the front porch. Personally, though, I find that this gastrique really shines alongside aged spirits. Its deep flavors complement and suss out details buried in dark liquors. Here are two originals that highlight what I mean.

The Show-Me Kate (left) and Cherry Season (Photos by Molly Sturdevant)

The Show-Me Kate

1/2 oz cognac
1 oz cherry-balsamic gastrique
7 drops Bittercube Jamaican #2 Bitters (or a dash of another style bitters)
4 oz club soda
1 wedge of lime

Shake the Cognac, gastrique and bitters with ice and strain into a rocks glass with fresh ice. Squeeze the lime wedge over the drink and top with club soda.

A deep Burgundy, this drink is an addictive fruit punch with a wicked velvety mouthfeel. It is light on booze, but the half ounce of Cognac is enough to give it a concentrated base that melds naturally with the other flavors, while the soda lengthens the overpowering gastrique into a surprising sipper.

Cherry Season

2 oz rye whiskey
3/4 oz sweet vermouth
1/2 oz cherry-balsamic gastrique
2 dashes orange bitters
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Orange peel, for garnish

Stir the ingredients over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a flamed orange peel.

The Cherry Season has a rich depth and thicker mouthfeel than a standard Manhattan and the gastrique dyes it a darker, ruddy color. There is sweetness right up front and a curious je ne sais quoi from the vinegar, but the finish carries the bitter, herbal vermouth notes well.

–David McCowan