At the Proctor farmers market on a Saturday morning, Albert McMurry hands a customer a drink. At first, there’s wary hesitation, then the customer’s eyes widen and she starts to smile. It’s a reaction McMurry loves — and the reason why the systems engineer gave up his IT job to make shrubs.
Shrubs? Yep. If you haven’t heard of these drink mixers that combine the sweetness of fruit or flowers, the tang of vegetables or spices and the sourness of vinegar, you need to get on board. Shrubs have been around since the ancient Romans, fashionable in colonial times, popular around Asia and, in the last five years, trendy with both American chefs and home gourmets. Fresh and tangy, they might sound strange — You want me to drink vinegar? — but they make tasty sodas and cocktails too.
Which is why McMurry, owner of Bona Fide Potents, loves them.
“It’s the fun of it,” McMurry said, scooping blueberry pulp into a steaming vat in a shared commercial kitchen in Tacoma’s Old Post Office. “It’s balancing the flavors. Sweet, people get and salty … but sour or bitter is more unusual. It’s about finding that balance … and the challenge of making sugar water interesting.”
Sweet, people get and salty … but sour or bitter is more unusual. It’s about finding that balance.” Albert McMurry, Bona Fide Potents
Calling shrubs “sugar water” is a bit like calling a violin a piece of wood. As McMurry brews up his weekly 10 gallons of blueberry-flavored shrub (called “The Purple One,” in homage to Prince), he explained both the simple process and the complex balance of ingredients.
Essentially, a shrub is a simple syrup with flavors added. McMurry begins by mixing up berries and sugar and letting the mixture sit for a week while the sugar draws out the moisture and begins the flavor process. Then he adds a steeped mix of herbal tea (in this case, rose hip, hibiscus and chamomile) and spices (cardamom, Szechuan peppercorns, black pepper, ginger, lemon zest). Finally, he adds white wine vinegar.
Essentially, a shrub is a simple syrup with flavors added.
Then he heats the whole thing for half an hour, adding some pulp from a previously pressed mixture for added purple color and flavor — and reduces the syrup. He presses it, strains, it, bottles it and … voila! Another of “Reverend Al’s Bona Fide Potents,” as McMurry’s old-school packaging puts it.
“It’s called a simple syrup because it’s a simple syrup,” said McMurry, who is baffled that anyone would willingly pay $6 a bottle for something so easily made at home. “Half the drink mixers out there … it’s criminal. I think it’s just knowledge. Grenadine sounds exotic, but if you say it’s crushed, reduced pomegranate people go, ‘Oh.’ ”
Combining sugar and water is simple enough. But start adding other flavors, and that’s where you need a bit of alchemy — and time. McMurry, who grew up cooking, began experimenting with homemade bitters about 10 years ago. He first tasted shrubs at the Thai restaurant Pok Pok in Portland and last year gave up his job as a systems engineer to make them full-time. He currently sells three flavors of shrub at the Proctor market. The Purple One is the most popular, but the fresh cucumber (with lemon, ginger, pepper, coriander and mint) gets nods of appreciation when mixed into club soda, especially on a hot day. It’s the third flavor that’s really adventurous: sweet peppers mixed with zingy ginger and turmeric, and the kick of a habanero, with some anise, cloves, pepper and kaffir lime thrown in.
“People are either OK with it or they hate it,” said McMurry, smiling. Inspired by the curative Fire Cider, he deliberately wanted something nasal-clearing. “I warn them first that this has a big flavor.”
In addition to shrubs, McMurry makes elixirs (like shrubs, but without the vinegar) and bitters, (which have an alcoholic base). He’s still waiting for his liquor board license to sell the bitters, which he’s made for friends and family for awhile now. But in the meantime, the shrubs are so popular it’s a full-time job making, bottling and selling them. The cash flow is starting to break even, he said, and eventually he hopes to get into restaurants, then wholesale and also launch an online store.
There will be new flavors soon, too. McMurry buys most of his fresh ingredients from the Proctor market, and now that peaches are in season he’ll be making a mixer with those.
He’s also experimenting with bottled sodas, including a cherry cola with a holiday-spice kind of base, as well as one with spruce tips (edible in early spring) in a rice-vinegar base. That combination has a fresh, citrusy taste.
Tacoma is home now. I’m trying to capture a Northwest flavor.” Albert McMurry, Bona Fide Potents
“I’ve lived all over,” said McMurry, who grew up an army kid in Germany, Korea and elsewhere. “But Tacoma is home now. I’m trying to capture a Northwest flavor.”
He’s also just trying to spread some joy.
“I love cooking,” he said. “And when I’m in the booth and giving people a taste, just to see their face — it’s a delight to me.”
Find Reverend Al’s Bona Fide Potents
Market: Albert McMurry sells shrubs and elixirs in both concentrate and soda form at the Proctor Farmers Market, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays, North 26th and Proctor Streets, Tacoma.
How to drink shrubs
Whether you make your own or buy it, here’s what you do with a shrub.
Soda: Mix one part shrub with four parts club soda (more if you like it stronger).
Cocktail: Use a shrub in place of simple syrup, but only half the amount called for in the recipe.
Keeping them: Due to their high acidity, bottled shrubs keep for months.