Ancient Elixir

Local bars and restaurants embrace the return of drinkable vinegar.

On First Thursday in May, Pioneer Square was swirling with art occasions and the warm air of spring, making it hard to get a table at Bar Sajor, chef Matt Dillon’s latest restaurant, set in a luminous, old corner space on Occidental and Jackson. A long, slim beam of wood at the center of the room supplied a standing-room-only bar—and it was packed.

Seasonally speaking, the rosé was hard to resist. But at the bottom of the menu, hidden among the usual nonalcoholic options, were four intriguing beverages: drinking vinegar in carrot, beet, rhubarb and mountain huckleberry.

Drinking vinegar may seem strange, but it’s been around for hundreds of years, returning to fashion via craft cocktails and all things artisanal. Small amounts of concentrate made of vinegar, sugar and various flavorings are mixed with soda water, roughly one part to four. Bar Sajor serves them in a tall goblet full of ice cubes with a long iced tea spoon. The vinegar settles steadily, giving the drinks a deep, saturated hue at the bottom that fades like a perfect ombre dye and demands an occasional stir.

My friend and I ordered all four flavors. Each has a rich, earthy depth, like coffee or wine. They’re a mix of tangy, tart and sweet with a gentle complexity that’s a long way from fruity, sugary Italian soda. The best was rhubarb, which combined the essences of fruit and vegetable, sweet and savory. The carrot—the only option that wasn’t amethyst-colored—had the flattest, sweetest flavor. Unless you really love carrots, you’re better off with something else.

Drinking vinegars can be made with all sorts of vinegars: balsamic, champagne, white wine, sherry. The vinegars themselves are made from fermented fruits or grains—a process that can take as long as a year, or as little as a few weeks; then they’re sweetened and flavored for beverage purposes. The resulting concentrate is served with water, sparkling water or something stronger.

In the United States and Britain, drinkable vinegars are often called “shrubs” and are not to be confused with the alcoholic type of shrub, which is rum- or brandy-based. Vinegar shrubs rose to popularity in colonial times, arriving in America from the UK where vinegars were used to preserve fruit before the advent of refrigeration. Colonial vinegar drinks involved infusing vinegar with berries for as long as a few days, then straining the fruit and adding sugar or honey to make a concentrate for cocktails or soda. Rocco’s in Belltown makes shrub and Ballard’s Walrus & Carpenter sometimes does too, though it wasn’t available when I visited in mid-May.

These drinks have a global history. The word “shrub” itself derives from the Arabic word sharab, meaning to drink. The Romans and the ancient Greeks enjoyed it, likely because the vinegar killed off bacteria in the water, and Samurai warriors drank it to stay energized. Today, various kinds of drinking vinegars are prevalent in Japan, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, parts of the American South and, increasingly, the Pacific Northwest. Many cultures believe they have medicinal properties.

At the forefront of the whole drinkable vinegar phenomenon is Portland’s beloved Thai restaurant Pok Pok, which started making it in 2005 and now bottles the stuff and distributes it. Pok Pok’s, called Som, comes in “extra strength,” a concentrated formula available in honey, tamarind, pomegranate, pineapple, raspberry and apple. (Pok Pok makes special seasonal flavors, too.) You can buy them from the restaurant online for $15 or pick up a bottle at Capitol Hill’s Sugar Pill for $18.

Photo by Nate Watters


Bar Sajor
323 Occidental Ave. S

Sugar Pill
900 E. Pine St.

2228 Second Ave.