CocktailsDrinksNon-Boozy DrinksSummerTomatoes

A Tomato Shrub Even (Most) Bloody Mary Skeptics Will Love

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It’s August. You know the drill. All together now, let us start to gush, swoon, and buckle at the knees at the mention of perfectly. ripe. tomatoes. Let’s make tomato sandwiches and tomato salads and extol the merits of the ugly but luscious tomato. It happens every year because the arc of the year is long and our memories and peak tomato season are both too short.

I like tomatoes in almost any guise. I like them cooked and I like them raw, in sauces and as salads and on sandwiches and in tarts. But I’ll tell you one place I do NOT like tomatoes: Cocktails. I cannot stand a Bloody Mary.

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Photo by Emily Vikre

I probably lost a lot of people as soon as I said that. At least where I live in the upper Midwest, Bloody Mary affection verges on worship. A sanctified Sunday brunch ritual, accompanied by a meal’s worth of garnishes and a small glass of beer called a “snit.” I just don’t like how the drink tastes. Every time I find my nose anywhere near a Bloody Mary, I think, “Please just take out the alcohol, heat the drink up, and serve it to me as soup. Please. And add a grilled cheese. Thanks.”

Tomato Shrub
Tomato Shrub

In an effort to coax me toward liking Bloody Marys, our head bartender at our distillery, perhaps knowing my affinity for anything with vinegar, got sneaky. He whipped up a batch of tomato shrub, heady with vinegar and punctuated with fragrant coriander and cumin. (A shrub, if you haven’t heard of them, is a drink made from fruit, sugar, and vinegar that was popular in the 17th and 18th centuries and has grown back into popularity in the last half-decade.) And I must say, tomatoes make for a really nice shrub. The sugar and acid coax out all the inherent fruitiness of the tomato while still highlighting the stemmy, green, savory aspect. It’s certainly not a bad thing to do with a pile of end-of-season tomatoes that have developed bruises and bad spots and need to find a swift use.

Photo by Emily Vikre

And this is where the story is supposed to say: And thus I learned to love tomato cocktails and am gradually learning to appreciate Bloody Marys. After all, it’s not often that we write stories (at least not drink stories) from a perspective of continued ambivalence. But, let’s be honest, I am still ambivalent. I liked the tomato shrub. I really did. I liked it on its own and as a drizzle on a salad. The end, sweet-sour, result of combining the tomatoes, plus sugar, plus vinegar into a shrub is actually a bit reminiscent of ketchup. And ketchup is delicious. But personally, I still don’t really want to drink it. Even spiked with vodka, or aquavit, or tequila.

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But don’t let my preferences deter you! We recently made a large batch of tomato shrub with tomatoes from a friend’s farm. We served it at their summer farm festival, spiked with aquavit and bedecked with cheese, bacon, and smoked sausage, and everyone raved. Except for me. Because I still don’t like Bloody Marys. Sigh. On the other hand, I whizzed the the leftover vinegary tomato pulp into a purée, and it was amazing with soft goat cheese on a piece of toast. And that, I believe, means everybody won.

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Tomato Shrub

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Makes a couple cups (depends on the juiciness of your tomatoes)
  • 1 pound fresh tomatoes, chopped
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
  • 1/4 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
  • 1/2 stick cinnamon
  • 1 pinch red pepper flakes
  • 1 pinch salt (plus more to taste)
  • 1/2 cup white wine vinegar
  • Worcestershire or hot sauce, to taste (optional)

Fiveandspice, a.k.a. Emily Vikre, is a writer, self-described "food policy wonk," and co-founder of Vikre Distillery. She lives in Duluth, Minnesota. You can read more of her writing here.

Pro tomato drinks, or anti? Pick a side in the comments below.

Tags: shrubs