The Difference Between a Simple Syrup, a Shrub, and Bitters
We spend a lot of time doing markets, tasting events, and food shows, and one of the most common questions we get is, "So, is this like a shrub?" First of all, congratulations to shrubs for making a hard comeback recently and having that kind of recognition! But secondly, simple syrups and shrubs are a little bit different. And since we get the question so often, I thought we should do a blog post to explain the difference between a few common cocktail ingredients: shrubs, bitters, and simple syrups.
Shrubs originated hundreds of years ago, when it was much more difficult to preserve fruit juice through the winter. A natural preservative, vinegar was added to the fruit juice to make it last longer. Traditionally, shrubs were made by pouring vinegar over fruit, allowing it to infuse, straining the fruit out, adding either sugar or honey, and reducing into a syrup. Shrubs are a common ingredient in cocktails that can serve as a replacement for either the citrus juice or the bitters, or as an additional ingredient to add complexity and depth of flavor. Shrubs are a great match to the recent rise in kombucha, as they both have a tangy brightness. In fact, they can be added to soda water to create a similar flavor profile to kombucha. When we use shrubs, we typically add about .25-.5 oz to a drink, as they can have a pretty strong flavor!
Bitters are a distilled mixture of botanicals, and they actually have an alcohol content. In this case, the alcohol acts as the preservative. They are considered a "digestif", meaning they can help settle your stomach. A bartender is far more likely to hand you a bitters and soda than a ginger ale if you complain to them about a stomach ache! Typically, 1-3 drops of bitters are added to a cocktail to create a more dimensional beverage. Bitters come in a huge range of flavors, and bitters companies proliferate on the cocktail market. If you want to understand the difference bitters can make in the flavor of a drink, first make a regular gimlet or daiquiri. Then make it again, but add a few drops of aromatic bitters to it, and observe the change in taste.
Simple syrup is pretty simple, as implied by the name. A plain simple syrup is just equal parts water and sugar, cooked down until combined. It acts as a sweetener and can be used in any recipe that calls for sugar. Flavored simple syrups are common at almost any cocktail bar, and bartenders get super creative with their flavors! In our case, our simple syrups are all fruit and herb flavored. We only use acidic fruits in our recipes, because the high acidity acts as a natural preservative. This allows our flavors to last longer without the addition of outside preservatives. We also only use raw sugar, because we love the deep caramel flavors it lends. Test out making a white simple syrup and a raw sugar simple syrup next time you're feeling creative in the kitchen, and you will be blown away by the difference in flavor. We usually add anywhere from .25-.75 oz of our syrup to drinks depending on how sweet we want them.
We never offer an explanation this long at markets, but we hope it was educational! If you have any other cocktail-related questions for us, always feel free to ask! Or request a new blog topic through our Contact Us page. Happy drinking!