SaloonBox Behind The Scenes: Lucas Ryden, Founder of Nostrum Shrub
Vinegar in a cocktail? An elixir that goes back as far as ancient times? That's the history of shrubs and we present you with an outstanding shrub company that is featured in our August cocktail kit. We spoke with the founder to learn more about his craft and here's what he had to say:
What led to your decision to start Nostrum? When was it founded?
I started Nostrum in late 2014. I had recently graduated college and was bartending until I figured out a full-time gig. I was reading a lot of cocktail history/bar books and became intrigued by shrubs, which seemed so unique (vinegar in a cocktail!?) and something I hadn’t seen much of on the market - unlike bitters, syrups, etc. I started messing around with them at home and making some flavors for the bar I worked in, and then decided to label and bottle them on my own. I thought they had immense potential as “shortcuts” for craft cocktails at home or in a fast-paced bar.
And what's the story behind the name?
Shrubs have a long history that dates back to the American colonies, and possibly as far back as the ancient middle east. They were a staple in early cocktails/punches, so I wanted the name to reflect that antiquated vibe and draw on the timeless “whiskey as medicine” trope. After researching old-fashioned medical terms I came across “nostrum”, which means "a medicine that is considered ineffective, prepared by an unqualified person.” This felt perfect, as I was bottling a mostly healthy product (organic/local ingredients, apple cider vinegar, etc.) designed for mixing with mostly unhealthy products (i.e. alcohol).
Moreover, I’m not a food scientist and I don’t have that much experience behind a bar, so “unqualified” felt pretty accurate too.
What's your goal with the business?
We’re in the midst of a really awesome cocktail/beverage movement, and I want to have an impression on it in a positive way. Shrubs are a great way to use produce from local farms in peak season, and the addition of vinegar makes them much healthier than some other syrups and mixers out there. They also force us to call into question our standards and “truths” about what should and shouldn’t be in a drinking glass. So I guess part of my goal is to pass that curiosity on to everyone else.
What's a typical day like?
At this point there is no typical day. Sometimes I’m in production, other times I’m making deliveries or sales calls, or maybe I’m scouting out potential bars and restaurants in a new city. If it’s a production day, I usually pick up our ingredients in the morning (either directly from a farm or from our distributors), head to our kitchen in north county, and crank out some bottles with my best friend Cass - who's also my roommate and sole employee. After sweating all day we usually grab some tacos and, if sunlight permits, a few waves on our way home. That’s a pretty classic Nostrum day.
How do people most often find out about Nostrum?
Hard to say. I would say there’s a few retail stores and bars that really showcase our product well and market it for us. Also, social media is a huge factor, and being featured on blogs or giveaways or cocktail subscriptions (like SaloonBox!) is an invaluable way to get the name out there.
Why do you think shrubs are coming back to popularity?
I think it’s mostly due to the whole “craft cocktail renaissance” that has seen a resurgence of classic drinks, ingredients, techniques, and even fashion. Shrubs are very old-school and that’s definitely the new school.
Tell us more about the ginger pineapple shrub in this month's kit - how do you source the ingredients, how is it made, how long does it take?
This is probably our most popular flavor and one that we’ve had since the beginning. I wanted to balance the bright acidity of pineapple with some earthy ingredients (turmeric root, ginger root) that still fit the tropical vibe. I source most of these ingredients through Specialty Produce in San Diego - an awesome resource for high quality wholesale produce. We basically just chop up all the ingredients super fine and let it sit (“macerate”) on the sugar and vinegar for a few days. Then we strain out the solids and it’s good to go.
What's your most popular product/flavor? Why do you think that is?
Year-round I would say the pineapple is the overall best seller. During the summer we have a strawberry/hibiscus/jalapeno flavor that tends to dominate those warmer months. People love spicy drinks in the summer, and strawberry is definitely a crowd pleaser.
Have you seen any new trends or creative ways of using shrubs lately?
We sell our shrubs to coffee shops that use them in sodas, and there’s one in particular (Hawthorn Coffee in North Park) that has been making some radical espresso/shrub drinks that I was really skeptical of at first. They’re delicious though!
What sets Nostrum apart from other shrubs on the market?
When I started bottling shrubs I set out to make them more complex, slightly sweeter and more fruit forward than what I saw on the market. So instead of a “strawberry shrub” that tasted like salad dressing I wanted to make a multi dimensional, “strawberry hibiscus jalapeño” shrub that tasted like the base of the best margarita you’ve ever had.
Do you find that you’re having to teach consumers how to use shrubs?
Definitely. There’s a huge educational component when you’re selling something unfamiliar to most people, that is also a concentrate and not a ready-to-drink product. I always recommend using 1/2-3/4 oz in a cocktail and 1 oz in a soda. Any more than that and you get too much vinegar. Any less and the flavor is too faint.
What is one of your biggest challenges?
Momentum. When you’re young and starting a company on a budget, it’s hard to scale and justify making all the necessary sacrifices to growth. Fortunately I’m not in a huge rush to cash out, so I’m OK with taking the slow lane and making sure the product is solid.
What was one of the most exciting moments for your brand?
Last year I had the opportunity to make shrub cocktails for one of the most famous and successful people of our time. And they were stoked on Nostrum!
Do you have any plans for new flavors or products in the pipeline that you can talk about right now?
Look out for passionfruit. If not this summer, definitely next.
What’s your favorite flavor and way to drink it?
I love mezcal so our newest flavor (Grapefruit, piloncillo, chipotle) was designed specifically for it. I like a simple sour with 2 oz. mezcal, 1/2 oz of that shrub and another 3/4 oz or so of fresh grapefruit juice. Pinch of salt on top.