Everyone has their spring rituals—mine is getting my hands on some rhubarb. I start circling my favorite greenmarket stands in mid-April, waiting less-than-patiently for the humble pink stalks to show up. Although I'd never be as bold as to talk trash about the classic pairing of strawberry and rhubarb, I love to let rhubarb stand alone as a flavor. It has an almost-grassy vegetal side and a bright tartness that practically begs to celebrated in a shrub.
Shrubs are drinking vinegars that have been around since colonial America: these tart fruit syrups are an incredibly easy way to preserve spring and summer produce. They're also super fun to play around with in cocktails and sodas. Here are three drink recipes—some boozy, some not—that highlight this gorgeous, jewel-toned spring shrub.
Rhubarb and Roses
I felt a little like I reached some sort of cocktail perfection with this drink: it manages to do the seemingly impossible by being both bourbon-based and pink. I chose the Italian aperitif Aperol to boost the rhubarb flavor: rhubarb is a noted ingredient in the bittersweet liqueur, along with bitter orange and gentian. Pairing Aperol with the rhubarb shrub lets the more savory side of rhubarb shine. I used Four Roses Yellow Label Bourbon here (hence the name), which gives the drink a nice full body. If you don't typically gravitate towards bourbon-based drinks, this would be a great one to try, because it has the lightness of something made with a clear spirit, but is still very complex.
When I was working on this cocktail, I couldn't help but think of that gross canned "fruit cocktail," which figured so prominently into my school lunches growing up. Thankfully, this is nothing like that. This is what a fruit cocktail ought to be—a tart and sweet, fruit-forward version of a classic cocktail, the Sidecar. With pear brandy, orange liqueur, and rhubarb shrub, this drink keeps the spirit of the Sidecar with three bold flavors. The shrub stands in for the traditional lemon, providing the necessary acid along with rhubarb flavor and a stunning rosy color. Orange liqueur goes hand in hand with rhubarb, adding sweetness and a warm orange flavor.
Rhubarb Lime Gimlet
I'm calling this drink a gimlet, although it's completely booze-free. In this no-alcohol libation, the rhubarb shrub mimics the flavor and intensity that alcohol would bring to a gimlet. The shrub has the sort of burn and kick that we expect from a spirit, which adds a level of interest that a lot of other mocktails lack. Tart lime juice and maple syrup round out the sharpness of the shrub for a delicious non-alcoholic sipper that doesn't feel like an afterthought.