To make vinegar from scratch you need alcohol, a sample of live bacteria known as a “mother” and cheesecloth to ward off pests. Lots and lots of cheesecloth. “Whoever said you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar is lying,” says BJ Lieberman, the sous chef at Rose’s Luxury who has turned the basement of the Capitol Hill hotspot into a lab fit for Walter White Wine Vinegar.
Using an elaborate process that involves bubblers, oscillating fans and pH meters, Lieberman makes Willy Wonka-like flavors of vinegar (Mountain Dew, bourbon-and-ginger ale, Manischewitz-and-Concord grape) that are laced in dishes on the menu at Rose’s Luxury.
Why would Lieberman bother with the laborious process of making vinegar when he can just pluck a bottle off the shelf at a grocery store? “Vinegar is a living thing that you have to taste all the time as it changes,” he says. “That’s what I find so cool about it.” Plus, live artisanal vinegars (as opposed to infusing flavor into the pasteurized versions from the supermarket) add an inimitable brightness to food and drinks and contain probiotics that aid with digestion.
Flavored vinegars can be used to deglaze pans or as an alternative to citrus in cocktails. They can be mixed into a vinaigrette and often they’re smooth enough to drink straight from the bottle.
Still, vinegar has long been the Art Garfunkel of the culinary world, better known for playing second fiddle to a much smoother, more versatile companion than it is for its own unique merits. But Lieberman is championing the piquant liquid’s many benefits. (He even had trucker hats made for the kitchen staff that say “Vinegar is for Lovers.”)
Daniel Liberson, owner of Lindera Farms Vinegar, shares a similar passion. Coincidentally, Liberson has been working as a server at Rose’s Luxury while getting his business off the ground. “BJ and I have developed a quick friendship/rivalry,” Liberson jokes. To hear him talk about his made-from-scratch vinegars is like listening to a grandmother talk about her granddaughter. And in a way, his vinegars are just as much kin: they’re made using elderflowers and mulberries hand-picked from his family’s property in Delaplane, Va. “They grow like weeds out there,” Liberson says. “I get them by the pound and they’re 100 percent local and fresh.”
His vinegars are available at retailers including Glen’s Garden Market and the Organic Butcher ($24 for a 7.1-ounce bottle), and Liberson is negotiating to get them used in some of the area’s more revered restaurants and bars, where they’re likely to stick around.
“Food trends disseminate from the highest tier of restaurant down to the mid-tier, until finally you see a foam on a McDonald’s burger,” Liberson says. “The best thing about the vinegar trend is it’s never going to go anywhere, because vinegar was around to begin with.”
Where to Tart
The recent popularity of flavored vinegars is more of a resurgence than a new trend: Their roots in the United States can be traced back to a bunch of thrifty boozers in Colonial America. “Gatherings around the punch bowl were the cocktail parties of the upper class in England,” says Dale DeGroff, the founding president of the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans and author of “The Essential Cocktail.” “When they caught on in the colonies, less affluent groups didn’t have access to affordable citrus so they ended up using vinegar with sugar.”
If that sounds gross, it’s because it kind of was. Vinegar was also used in the colonies to preserve fruit in the off-season, and by the 19th century people realized the resulting liquid — infused with natural fruit flavors — wasn’t half bad. Sugar and honey were added and “shrubs” were born. The taste of a shrub is comparable to a sweet kombucha, with a light sparkle and a slight tartness that’s more palatable than bitter lemons and limes.
Done wrong, a cocktail made with shrubs can be disastrous. “It’s just a little bit dangerous,” DeGroff says, “because vinegar, after all, tastes like vinegar.”
Locally, you can find shrubs-done-right at Republic, where a glass of the People’s Punch includes a lemon, orange and lime variety ($7); in the tangy Hollow Apple cocktail from Eat the Rich made with a green apple shrub (above, $12) and the Night Gladiolus cocktail at Toki Underground, in which beverage director Colin Sugalski mixes Nolet’s gin, egg whites and a rice wine vinegar infused with ginger, lemongrass, pomegranate, honey and bird’s eye chilies ($10).