Food by VICE

I Got Wasted on Drinking Vinegar

Drinking vinegars (or, "shrubs", as they're otherwise known) are having a quiet resurgence here in the UK. They're not just tasty and good for you, either—if you're of sensitive disposition, they'll get you a bit wasted.

by Eleanor Morgan
Aug 29 2014, 2:31pm

All images by the author

According to the Daily Mail, it's "time to forget green juice."

The secret to health and glowing skin is, it bleats, is "drinking VINEGAR" and now, as if you needed any further nudging towards the condiment cupboard, "Megan Fox and Miranda Kerr's favourite 'ferments' are going mainstream."

Those who regularly drink green juice will attest that it's pretty difficult to "forget" it in a hurry—such is the profound effect it can have on the bowels if you drink enough of it. Maybe that's just me. Anyway, this drinking vinegar thing, along with all things fermented, appears to be going off (pun fully and constitutionally intended). Every restaurant worth their methane is brewing up something or other; beers, pickles, kimchis, and home-made sourdoughs so alive-and-kicking, you almost want to set them a place at the table and ask what they think of the butter.

Drinking vinegar is still what trend forecasters may or may not call a "micro-trend" here in the UK and is highly, highly likely to make those who don't live in either a) a hippie commune in Stroud, b) in probiotic-loving California or c), in a metropolitan postcode where plucky young brewers are opening small-scale craft breweries quite sceptical. But really, drinking vinegars—or "shrubs"—are a tipple as old as time. Certainly older than your penchant for sour bread.

Back in 17th-century England, shrubs were a way to preserve surplus fruit, made by macerating whatever was to hand—apples, berries, etc.—with sugar before passing through a sieve and then adding vinegar (usually cider). Vinegary drinks go back further than the 17th century, though. Poor Romans would add date vinegar—poscato water to make it palatable, and the culinary application of vinegar goes back to the Ancient Egyptians.

As for vinegar's health benefits, we can but look to the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, who prescribed apple cider vinegar left, right, and centre for myriad ills. My granny was onto something every time she gave me a tablespoon of vinegar for the "dicky tum" I'd often get when I stayed with her. It may have been Sarson's that she gave me—I'll never know. She's not around to ask anymore.

Back to the modern day, though, where vinegar as anything other than a salad dressing component is quietly getting people excited. Here in the UK we have a lot of catching up to do those on the other side of the Atlantic, where I'm told on good authority that shrubs have been A Thing for a while now. A friend who visited Portland recently said he "literally couldn't move" for "sipping vinegar."

In London, one restaurant—Hackney's Raw Duck—is at the centre of this quiet resurgence. As Giles Coren recently pointed out in his colon-centric review of the place, "prebiotics and probiotics are the big thing just now at the crossover point between theories of diet, longevity and plain old hypochondria."

Raw Duck's walls are like those of an ancient apothecary—filled with huge jars of various, multicoloured ferments of fruit (peaches, apricots, rhubarb), vegetables (cucumber, black radish, cauliflower ribs, cabbage-heavy kimchi), and even their stones—they have a cherry stone and fennel vinegar ferment that smells like a boozy Bakewell tart. In the fridges behind the bar, bottles and bottles of drinking vinegars the colours of the rainbow threaten to topple out at any minute.

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L-R: Watermelon, strawberry, apple and raspberry.

Raw Duck's co-owner, Rory McCoy, lines a few up for me. I feel like I'm in Cheers, but also like I should be wearing a lot of hessian and patchouli.

We start with watermelon, strawberry, apple, and raspberry—all made on-site the traditional way, by macerating the fruit with sugar and leaving it for 48 hours before diluting with cider vinegar. (They use an organic one with the mother intact.) As soon as he flips the lids, I'm hit with a sharp wave of funky, tropical smells. I feel a bit like I'm in my compost bin—in a good way. The vinegars are to be drunk diluted with soda water, but I try them all neat first.

The watermelon was clean and sweet, vaguely reminiscent of those little jelly sweets you'd get in a Woolworths pick 'n' mix and only a touch acidic. The strawberry was viscous, potent, and like drinking an acidic coulis. Delicious. The apple was like cider syrup—very alcoholic-tasting and sweet, with a nice, sharp kick-up-the-arse at the end. The raspberry, my favourite, was like the purest distillation of the fruit I've ever tasted and was, pleasingly, the most acidic of the lot.

We then tasted them all as they're supposed to be drunk—diluted with the soda water—and it was like watching a science experiment as McCoy poured. As the gas bubbles hit the ferments they all frothed up like miniature versions of that secondary school lab stalwart, Elephant's Toothpaste. I necked half a glass of each before trying a few special, "off-menu" brews McCoy has stashed away—a rhubarb, vanilla, and cardamom shrub was a particular highlight, as was the black cherry drinking vinegar, which smelt like how you'd imagine a hedgerow might if it took itself down the pub and necked a few brandies.

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Black cherry drinking vinegar.

I was starting to feel a bit pissed, my thighs feeling hot and heavy like after a glass of red wine. Is that supposed to happen?

"I don't know the science behind it, but it can do," says McCoy. "They can have quite the effect on you—not least on the digestive system," before describing how, when he drinks it, he can feel the vinegar "slicing through" his guts. As he said it, my own said something to me. "Stay near a toilet," perhaps.

"My mum used to make me drink cider vinegar as a kid," he says. "She's a bit of a health freak and would give us a spoonful if we had an upset stomach. One of my relatives is a doctor, too, and always suggests using it on coldsores or any kind of fungal infection like athlete's foot—make sure you put that in, with special emphasis on the word 'fungal'."

Raw Duck, along with restaurants like Hawksmoor (which uses orange and peach shrubs in its cocktails), aren't serving drinking vinegars as a health tonic, though. "There would be no point in us selling something that didn't taste good," McCoy says. "And it's a great way to avoid wastage. Now, we're actually buying old fruit from our fruit and veg supplier for as little as 50 pence a punnet, rather than the usual couple of quid, but making drinking vinegars is a fantastic way to use surplus stock. It costs pennies to make—all you need on top is the sugar (we use an unrefined one) and vinegar."

How do they know it's safe, though? I had a terrible incident with kombucha once, and the rudimental, DIY-nature of this kind of thing can put some people off. "There's nothing volatile in a drinking vinegar like there is kombucha," says McCoy. "Nothing is growing. Besides, cider vinegar becomes alkaline in your gut."

There was definitely something happening in my gut. And head—I felt like I'd drunk two gin and tonics on an empty stomach. As anyone who knows me will confirm, I am the world's most preposterous lightweight. I dropped my pen on the floor and laughed like a drain.

"It's such great stuff," says McCoy. I tell him he sounds like a man obsessed. "I am," he laughs. "It sort of all started on a research to San Francisco with my business partner, Clare Lattin, when I spent hours looking at bottles of the stuff in Buy Right. Clare kept telling me to get lost, but I ended up leaving with a few bottles of Pok Pok's som drinking vinegar, made from Chinese celery and cane sugar. I loved it, and that's what set me off, really."

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You can see why. If you have any interest in your gut, what's good for it and what exits it later on, this fermentation lark is a goldmine.

McCoy tells me that they have people regularly coming into Raw Duck now asking about their drinking vinegars, kombucha (they make that too) and ferments, particularly after Coren's review. "People really go for it," he says. "They give it a go and then come back for more. We've even had people ringing to see if they can buy the vinegars in bulk, but we're not quite at that stage yet. It's mostly just me and one of our chefs making them."

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Looking at the wall of ferments, I tell McCoy he should rename the restaurant Raw Gut. He chuckles quietly, looking into the middle distance.

I really was drunk.