From grenadine to horchata, cocktail history has seen no shortage of ingredients that go from little-known to trendy. The last to come to light is vinegar. Surprisingly, acid solution has made its way from kitchen cabinets to mixing glasses in imaginative and inventive ways.
The most recent viral phenomenon is starring one of the most widely used staples in the kitchen: balsamic vinegar. Known as “Healthy Coke,” a drink that tastes similar to Coca-Cola and is made from balsamic vinegar, ice, and sparkling water, the trend started on TikTok and has racked up millions of views. Although this drink is non-alcoholic, it ties in with the growing popularity of vinegar on the bar scene.
The bush trend, pre-TikTok, focused on a sweetened vinegar-based syrup. Instead of stealing the limelight from 60-second videos, bushes usually played a supporting role in cocktails, increasing the flavor and tartness of mixed drinks. But these days, bushes and other “drinking vinegars” are becoming the stars of the show, with bartenders crafting cocktails around them.
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The bushes have really reinforced the movement of the vinegar, says mixologist Mariena Mercer Boarini of Casa Playa at Wynn Las Vegas. “Creatively, I love to use champagne or apple cider vinegar, but I also like to get original with balsamic or flavors like lemon verbena white wine vinegar,” she says. Through her bar’s cocktail program, Mercer Boarini introduces champagne vinegar through interesting bushes, each of which stars in her own cocktail.
However, working with such a powerful ingredient does present some challenges. “I prefer to add the vinegar during the simmering process of the ingredients,” he says, “because it will cook off any overly pungent aromas that are sometimes associated with vinegar.” His method, while meticulous, ensures that strength and bright acidity are preserved while removing overpowering aromas.
As the star of the drink, it’s important to understand how much acidity your chosen vinegar will bring. Most contain between 5 and 8 percent acetic acid by volume, making them incredibly adept at providing balance in a cocktail. And as budding home mixologists know, acidity is a much-needed element in stabilizing flavors. However, what makes this ingredient so unique is its ability to deliver explosive flavors. “Adding different types of vinegar will add a punch and tint that citrus won’t achieve on its own,” says Mercer Boarini.
Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Horball’s crafts several unique and off-the-shelf “drinking vinegars” made with cocktail enthusiasts in mind. The brand’s offerings range from sweet to spicy to savory. Horball’s also offers a helpful and easy-to-use recipe guide to fully understand the flavor profile of each ingredient and enable them to achieve balance in beverages. After all, who doesn’t want the vinegar component to “dance on your palate” in an interesting way, without being too overwhelming?
In neighboring South Carolina at Sullivan’s Fish Camp, bar manager Jordan Moton chooses a homemade strawberry bush as the star of his Deck Hand cocktail. “A fruit-based vinegar adds acid, but it also reduces the richness of certain spirits and liqueurs,” he notes. The production process is also quite easy and often inexpensive. “For our strawberry bush, we first make a strawberry syrup and let it sit at room temperature overnight before adding a homemade strawberry vinegar and finally a salt solution,” she says.
Whether mixed at a professional bar or at home, vinegar can bring the flavors of a cocktail together in a unique way. But exercising caution remains essential. “If you are experimenting at home. I would start [by] adding small amounts of vinegar,” suggests Moton. However, if you accidentally add too much vinegar, acidity can be controlled with another kitchen staple: good old sodium chloride. Says Morton: “Salt and acid go hand in hand, and when it comes to cocktails, it’s all about balance.”
The cursed temple of Casa Playa
1 ½ ounces of mezcal
¼ ounce of empirical spirits Ayuuk
¼ ounce Giffard Caribbean pineapple liqueur
1 ounce lime juice
½ ounce grilled pineapple habanero bush
1 ounce pineapple juice
Shake all ingredients with ice.
Strain over fresh ice into a tiki glass.
Garnish with pineapple leaves and/or a dried pineapple chip.
Grilled Pineapple Habanero/Ancho Shrub
1 gallon of simple syrup
1 pineapple (peeled and roasted)
1 tablespoon ground ancho
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1/2 cup champagne vinegar
1 vanilla bean, grated
Pineapple rings and grilled habaneros (quick splash on the habaneros).
Add all ingredients to a saucepan and bring ingredients to a boil.