Food & Drink

Coffee house’s shrub drink is worth cultivating

On July 15, with The Mill’s first anniversary fast approaching, the owners of this much-admired midtown coffee house added something new to the menu.

They put out signage. They trained the staff on the details of the ingredients and some of the history. They had the Mason jars and lids all lined up.

And they got ready for the double-takes and inquiries. What may have surprised them was how quickly they sold the drink with a simple and less-than-elegant name: the shrub.

It became an instant best-seller, both to those who knew about it in craft cocktail circles and the many who were willing to give something new and unusual a try.

What they got for their $4 was a gentle pucker of tartness, a hint of sweet from start to finish, a balance of fruit flavor and a textural experience from the house-made sparkling water infused with bergamot orange. And on the recent 100-plus degree days that lingered over Sacramento, this drink was thirst-quenching in a whole new way.

The shrub is actually an old, old drink that has been rediscovered and revamped by a new wave of cocktail artisans and discerning foodies. The Mill’s version is nonalcoholic and drinks more like a craft soda. To the uninitiated, the most notable flavor note is the vinegar – it’s tart in a way that will soothe some and jolt others. But no one denies its palate-pleasing finish that sweeps over the tongue in a way that is crisp, dry and refreshing.

The owners of The Mill are a longtime couple, Nick Minton and Ilah Rose Cookston. They got the idea for the shrub while cafe-hopping in the Bay Area.

“We didn’t even know what it was,” Cookston said with a laugh. “But we said, ‘Let’s get it and see what it is.’ I took a drink and the apple cider vinegar hit my palate and I said, ‘Oh my God. This is amazing. We have to make this.’”

Soon, they were reading as much as they could about the drink and experimenting with different concoctions. They knew they wanted to use fresh fruit and quality vinegar. But the rest of it would come to them as they tasted and tweaked in the weeks ahead.

It turns out the shrub has plenty of history, much of it dating to colonial times and even earlier. The popularity of the drink centuries ago was based on the perceived health benefits of drinking vinegar and fruit juices. The American version of the drink can be traced to the 17th century.

The Mill has built its reputation for quality by slowly introducing drinks that go beyond its lineup of coffee beverages, including house-made almond-macadamia milk for nondairy lattes and the instantly popular sparkling water served alongside espresso as a palate cleanser (It’s suggested you drink it before the coffee to clear the palate).

“We just started experimenting. OK, let’s see what different fruits taste like with different vinegars,” Cookston said.

They used an array of local organic fruits to make the syrups and began to notice that, when combining the syrup and vinegar, the overall quality of the drink improved with age.

“We found all kinds of ingredients and ratios for stuff. We found that most of the resurgence of this drink has been in cocktail circles,” added Minton. “We tried to follow those recipes first, but we realized those drinks were meant to be a mixer in a cocktail. We had to depart from that a little because we were serving it as a stand-alone drink.”

What they came up with was two batches initially – one flavored with apricots and spearmint, the other with nectarines. They are served in 16-ounce Mason jars with lids, along with a large single ice cube. Customers are asked to leave a $1.50 deposit for the jars. Cookston and Minton have plans for more fruit flavors. So far, the response has been resoundingly positive.

Says Minton, “It’s one thing to do something that’s exciting and different. But it’s another thing to put something on the menu that people are going to want to come back for and experience over and over again. You want it to be accessible.”

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob

Try the shrub

The Mill is at 1827 I St., Sacramento, and is open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. 916-469-9683;