Shrub District’s founder and owner Don Morton’s love of vinegar dates back to his childhood: Foreshadowing that he’d someday launch his own line of cocktail and beverage vinegars, returning the old art of making “shrub” back to home and commercial bars?
Don shares, “We always had pickles in the house growing up. In fact, my favorite book as a kid was Pickle Things by Marc Tolon Brown. I still pickle in the house regularly—things like pickled red onions with allspice, and sauerkraut.
Reviving a Lost Culinary Art
“I have a strong affinity for the tart flavor profile, and I love to entertain, so years back I began using my home bar as an outlet for my creative energies. In 2006 and 2007, I started making cocktail ingredients that I couldn’t find commercially, like orange bitters, real grenadine, and shrubs.”
“About that time, living in DC, I really started taking note of lowering barriers to entry for new business models. I watched new distillers and producers pop up. I watched the proliferation of farmers markets. I watched as makers were reclaiming traditions and customers were welcoming new products with enthusiasm. All of this drove my exploration. I thought, ‘Let’s make some shrubs for the house.’ I wanted to call back the age-old tradition of making shrubs—originally something that was done to preserve the flavors and fruits of the season by adding vinegar and then sugar to them. To see what was already available, I started tasting commercial products and was not impressed. Experimenting at home, I came up with the Pineapple Allspice, which is still one of our best sellers.”
“I’d always been interested in food and beverage, and in creating a firm economic base for people. I worked at the State Department in food safety. I worked for a trade association based on bringing manufacturing jobs back to the US. Whatever the job, I was always asking, ‘How do we create a solid foundation for the real economy?’ I felt my home experimentation was really leading me somewhere, so I decided to take advantage of a window in my life to take a great leap of faith and launch Shrub District—to take my home bar hobby and try to make a go of it. A major point of pride has been hiring people, and making sure they have a good foundation and economic standing. We all feel good about working with small, independent retailers with products you can’t find at the big box stores.”
“Brighten Your Spirits”
Today, Don delights in helping customers “brighten their spirits,” adding shrub made from fresh whole fruit, herbs, and spices. Flavors are “tart but sweet, complex but pure, hip but casual. The perfect balance for a busy, rewarding life.” “Brighten your spirits” captures the essence of Shrub District, the brightness both a reference for the base vinegar and an attitude, or feeling about life. “Acidity brightens a dish and our attitude lights our lives. We value products that are true to their face and ingredients that you understand. During the summer season, people are out and about, spending time with family. Our shrubs bottle the summer vibe so it can be enjoyed year round. Southern California, Florida, and Hawaii don’t have to monopolize that sense of a return to summer regardless of season anymore—now we can bring that vibe back wherever we live.”
3 Ingredients=1 Great Cocktail
Don wanted to make it easy for everyone to enjoy cocktails in their home bar, and become as creative with them as they wanted. “I’m an egalitarian drinker, and truly believe that anyone can make a great cocktail; it’s just a matter of measurements. All of our recipes only require 3 ingredients to make something totally unique that is greater than the sum of the parts: shrub, liquor, and a third ingredient like something fizzy. From my time living in Italy, I became strongly influenced by the sense of pantry, by how we use a few ingredients already in the house to create unlimited combinations. My parents were very career-driven, and our family ate the same 5 meals again and again. But in Italy, I came to understand that one can make 1,000 dishes from 15 ingredients. That influence is something that has become an inherent part of Shrub District.”
Whether customers choose the Pineapple Allspice, Blueberry Basil, Strawberry Dill, Just Grapefruit, or Lime, each shrub already offers a balance of tart, sweet, and savory undertones. Don continued, “These aren’t mixers, because that implies more of a limitation in style of drink—you’re kind of stuck with a margarita or an gin and tonic, mixers are sort of unitaskers. With shrubs, you’re not restricted. They serve as cocktail architectures or templates from which anyone can build, and their versatility is virtually unlimited. I love, for example, that they make perfect base for punch.”
“Punch culture itself is intriguing . . . the punch bowl becomes a reflection of social psychology. Guests love to gather around the punch bowl, and a mixing and mingling of guests that might not otherwise have ended up in conversation is kind of magical. Relatedly, I definitely recommend reading Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl by Dave Wondrich for a window into the history of this great drink, and an understanding of how easy punches are to make. Aside from the way punch functions for the guests, it works so well for the hosts because you prepare it ahead of time so you can enjoy the party along with your guests, versus having to spend all your time behind the bar preparing drinks to order.”
“We try to carry that idea of the punch bowl throughout our lineup. Shrub can help people who have really busy lives create the atmosphere of ‘make ahead’ without having to do so; keep it on hand, and it’s ready whenever you are. There’s no need to worry about it going bad in the fridge. We recommend consuming within about three months after opening for peak flavor, but our shrubs are shelf-stable up to a year. It was important to me that they be reasonably priced so they can be part of everyone’s home bar.”
What’s happening in Don’s home bar when he and his wife entertain? “We just launched Blueberry Basil and I’ve been using it in everything. Cachaça is magical with the blueberry. People seem to be enjoying our “Bourbon Blue,” and tequila + Blueberry Basil Shrub + soda. A staple drink at my house is the Algonquin. We use rye whiskey, dry vermouth, and our Pineapple Allspice Shrub instead of pineapple juice. Shaken with a twist of lemon, it’s always a party favorite."
"One response to some recipes I often hear brings up aversions to a particular liquor. ‘I don’t drink whiskey because of this one night in the late 80s.’ Customers and friends are really surprised to learn that when they are working with more flavorful spirit bases, they can forgive the liquor that gave them a bad experience.”
Shrub District’s customer promises include “to always try your drink recipe.” Seems like a lot of imbibing, so I was curious what this pledge meant. Don laughed, “A lot of this comes back to family. My mom always said, ‘There’s more than one right way to do everything.’ I wanted to extend the notion of welcoming, acceptance, and hosting . . . my wife and I love entertaining, and it’s the same attitude we want to have as a company. We are happy to see innovation, to nurture sharing and inventing. This is kind of uniquely American . . . whatever your background, you can make an impact on the world. Whether you’re a bartender in Wichita or school teacher in Little Rock, you can come up with the next big drink.”
So get your shrub and get mixing, Don’s waiting for your recipes.