Making vinegar, he says, “helps us interact closely with the total landscape of local agriculture.” It means using produce that can’t be sold primarily for aesthetic reasons or that can’t make it to the market in time. “We work at the margins of the harvest.”
He describes a York apple, one of the varieties that Keepwell makes into vinegar: “It’s very ugly,” he says. “It’s kind of slanted. It looks like someone photoshopped an apple and dragged out one of the corners.” Usually grown for cider and applesauce, the York develops “a really wonderful quality that only emerges after a certain amount of time in the barrel.” Keepwell mellows and ages the vinegar in oak barrels for at least a year, at which point it begins to develop what Billington describes as a “honey aroma.”
“We’re not there to be a commodity,” he says. “We are an avenue for people to be more into cooking and be more into cooking with things that have a lot of flavor.”
By this point, you may be thinking about tracking down some craft ACV. But there’s only so many vinaigrettes you can make. How else can you enjoy the full force of vinegar?
One delicious suggestion: shrubs.
Cocktail expert Mike Dietsch remembers when he had his first shrub. It was at Tales of the Cocktail, the annual gathering of spirits and drinks enthusiasts in New Orleans, in July 2008, when the city was punishingly hot and humid. A shrub-based cocktail, with cachaça and lime juice, was exactly right. “We were all just amazed at how refreshing this drink was,” he recalls. “A number of us went home and started to experiment with shrubs.”
This included Dietsch. His book, Shrubs: An Old Fashioned Drink for Modern Times, is a guide to the wide world of these irresistibly quaffable concoctions. Shrubs, Dietsch tells me, were born in 17th-century Britain and got their sour bite from citrus juices, especially lemons and limes—not from vinegar. In the American colonies, citrus fruits were harder to come by. So colonists started using the acid they had available: vinegars, including ACV. The vinegar-based shrub is an American innovation.
To level up your shrub experimentation, you could even make your own apple cider vinegar, beginning with a bottle of hard cider. Supreme Vinegar, Smith’s company, sells mothers of vinegar, a starter culture of bacteria to get you going, to aspiring vinegar makers. (Many commercial vinegars are pasteurized and do not contain living cultures.)
Or you can begin at the beginning, making your own cider with apple juice and winemaker’s or wild-foraged yeast. Maybe you’d like to add herbs, flowers, or other fruits to coferment and add some funk to your ACV. Shockey’s book, Homebrewed Vinegar, is an excellent resource for both the novice and experienced vinegar maker, outlining the tools and techniques of vinegar making, and offering step-by-step instructions and gorgeous photographs of rainbow-hued vinegars.
With vinegar making, experimentation is encouraged. “Anything that has sugars in it will eventually become vinegar,” Shockey says. This means there is a lot of room to play around with flavor.
“If it’s not great,” Shockey laughs, “you can still use it as a cleaning fluid!”