So just in case any of you were worried that last year’s shrub-stravaganza was a fleeting obsession, allow me to assure you that it was, so most definitely, not. I’ve been branching out in weird directions this summer, and the results have been mixed thus far. (There’s currently a cantaloupe + champagne vinegar shrub steeping in my pantry that smells……funky. Like musky melon funky. And a fig + balsamic shrub sounded amazing in theory, but the actual execution would have best involved me living in a place where I can get fresh, ripe figs, not strange unripe ones shipped from god knows where. I still have hopes for both of these, but not high ones.) This fennel-apple-rhubarb shrub, however, is a different story.
I’ve been thinking a lot about using more savory ingredients for shrubs this year, especially after making a couple rad veggie-based drinks. I quickly fixated on fennel, and combining it with apple. When the time came to make this, I had intended on throwing together a strawberry + rhubarb one as well. But after discovering that my strawberries had gotten a bit iffy looking, I said what the heck and threw the rhubarb in with the fennel and apple.
The result is a delicious shrub with a lot going on. There’s an up-front tartness from the rhubarb, followed by a mellow sweetness and body from the apple. The anise-y flavor of the fennel tones everything down without being overwhelming, and makes this a very complex and tasty beverage.
Because of its tartness and depth of flavor, I was immediately drawn towards mixing it with aperitifs. Upon tasting my first concoction (which was good in its own right, but not quite there), I was reminded of one of my favorite drinks I used to order at a local restaurant. It was called Autumn Winds, and it contained (if I remember correctly) vodka, aperol, lillet, cynar, lemon juice, and coffee pecan bitters.
The Autumn Winds led me to understand the purpose of vodka in a drink. When I first became interested in cocktails a couple years ago and actually developed a taste for things like whiskey and gin (the latter was a huge step for me, having capital-H Hated it for the longest time), I started copping a snotty attitude towards vodka. Now, to be fair, the fact that one has to sort through a sea of unimaginable flavored vodkas just to find a plain, decent bottle these days really did not help things at all. (Iced cake vodka, really? And “sorbet light”……wtf does that even MEAN?!) But this drink made me realize that there are times when you leave the flavor-building to the liqueurs, and let vodka do its thing as a neutral base spirit.
So, I decided to recreate the Autumn Winds as best I could (I definitely craned my neck in an attempt to get a good look at how the bartender made it on more than one occasion — Hi Maji!), swapping out the lemon juice for the shrub. The resulting drink is pretty close to what I remember. Now, just a few words about the ingredients. If you indulge in fancy cocktails, you’ve probably tried (or at least heard of) Lillet and Aperol. Cynar might come across as a little bit weirder, especially with its (awesomely ugly) label featuring a giant artichoke. But please believe me when I tell you that it is freakin’ delicious. (Caveat: It might not be for everyone, as it does have a rather bitter, more complex flavor than some of the sweeter, less alcoholic aperitifs. The word I often use to describe the taste is “squeaky,” which I realize makes absolutely no sense at all. But don’t you kind of want to try it now, just to know what the heck I’m talking about? Yusss.) In this particular drink, it does a great job of balancing out the brightness of the other ingredients. And the coffee-pecan bitters really bring the whole thing together in a harmonizing sort of way (as I find they do in most drinks where there is a lot going on in the flavor department). I made my own from the recipe in BTP’s Bitters. You can find a similar recipe here (just add 1/2 a cup of toasted pecans), or feel free to drop me a line if you’d like the recipe I used. If you don’t want to go to the trouble of making your own bitters, I think any store-bought variety with nutty/coffee/molasses-y components would do nicely.
There are, of course, plenty of other ways to use this shrub! Experiment with it in your own cocktails, or simply add it to soda water to make a super refreshing drink. Also, I realize rhubarb is pretty much out of season at this point (although I did see a few lonely stalks kicking around the natural foods market this week). There is one vendor at my market that actually gets a fall crop of rhubarb, but I’m not sure if this is a common thing everywhere. As an alternative, you could use Granny Smith (or another variety of tart apple) in place of the rhubarb.
makes: approximately 2 cups of syrup
2/3 cup of rhubarb, chopped
2/3 cup of fennel, finely chopped
2/3 cup of apple, chopped (I used Fuji)
2 cups of granulated sugar
1 1/4 cups of white wine vinegar
3/4 cup of apple cider vinegar
Combine rhubarb, fennel, apple, and sugar in a bowl, stirring to evenly coat the fruit. Allow mixture to sit for around 1 hour, then macerate until everything is nice and broken up. Cover and let sit for 24 hours. (At room temperature is fine, but feel free to stick it in the fridge too.)
After 24 hours, macerate the mixture again, trying to crush the fruit as much as possible. At this point, you can add the vinegars immediately, or let it sit for another 24 hours. (I’d recommend giving it the additional 24 hours, as I think this extra fermentation time does nice things for the final flavor.)
When ready, add the vinegars and stir well. Store at room temperature (or in the fridge, if you prefer) for 7–9 days, giving it a good stir each day. When finished, pour the mixture through a cheesecloth-lined sieve, then transfer to a clean jar or container. Store syrup in the fridge.
makes: 1 drink
3/4 oz. vodka
3/4 oz. Lillet Blanc
3/4 oz. Aperol
3/4 oz. fennel-apple-rhubarb shrub
1/2 oz. Cynar
dash of coffee-pecan bitters
Add lemon twist to a chilled cocktail glass, rubbing it around the rim first. Shake all the other ingredients in a shaker with ice, then strain into the glass.