If you're not familiar with drinking vinegar (or shrubs), it's a must-try for any craft cocktail connoisseur. Shrubs have a long history in American culinary culture and they are a wonderful addition of flavor to not only cocktails but so many other savory and sweet foods that we eat.
Jess Sanchez is the CEO of McClary Bros. She was recently featured on an episode of Shark Tank where she received great advice from the sharks, including Mark Cuban. Check out her entrepreneurial journey and find out a little bit behind how her Apple Pie Drinking Vinegar tastes so good.
When/How did you discover drinking vinegar and what led to your decision to start McClary Bros.?
I was in culinary school when I started McClary Bros. and I did it because I didn’t see myself working in a restaurant kitchen from 2 pm - 2am. My twin boys were 2-years-old at the time and I knew working in a kitchen wasn’t the right path for me and I would have to get creative to achieve success.
Have you noticed any changes in the beverage industry (relating to shrubs) since you started?
“Craft” was just starting to creep into menus when we first started, now it’s the term du jour. The more that chefs and bartenders get interesting with their menus, the more adventurous patrons have gotten. Shrubs, however, can easily be done poorly. Where we used to face customers who had never heard of shrubs, now we face customers who have experienced poorly made shrubs. The best advice I can give anyone: Don’t drink distilled white vinegar, ever.
How do most people find out about McClary Bros.? Who's the typical buyer/user of your product?
Well, appearing on Shark Tank helped in that regard quite a bit. Beyond that, we see a lot of people who’ve had a drink with our vinegars on a menu and want to know what else they can do. Our customers are excited to experience vinegar in a way they hadn’t considered. It's as if an entire flavor profile had been hidden from you and suddenly you get to unlock an entirely new way of flavoring foods and drinks.
Do you find that you're having to explain to consumers how to use shrubs?
Sometimes we do, but often people are asking “What more can I do with this?” because they’ve gotten used to using just one way, in their favorite drink. But you can use them in cocktail, sodas, dressings, marinades, desserts and so much more.
Any new trends you’ve spotted or unusual ways of using shrubs?
I don’t like to say that anything is unusua l when it comes to food, mostly because that can make people apprehensive to try it. I do like to hear about the exciting new ways that people are using shrubs. I recently had a bread pudding that featured our Apple Pie drinking vinegar that blew me away!
Tell us more about the Michigan Apple Pie Drinking Vinegar; how do you source the ingredients, how is it made, how long does it take?
Our Apple Pie Drinking Vinegar is our signature flavor and my personal, year-round favorite. I love the complexity it brings to drinks and dishes and there is no better flavor for when the leaves start to fall. We use no less than 3 varieties of apples, all grown in Michigan, but never Granny Smith (too tart) or Red Delicious (they taste like nothing!). The varieties will change as the season progresses and some folks (with a highly refined palate) will notice the subtleties between an early-season batch and a late-season batch. We use only the highest quality organic, unpasteurized apple cider vinegar in the country. The process itself is proprietary (I can’t share all of our secrets!) but our batches can take anywhere from 2-4 weeks to make, depending on the flavor.
What's your most popular product/flavor? Why do you think that is?
In the race to be the best seller, it's a dead heat between Apple Pie and Lemon & Ginger. Lemon & Ginger is a very approachable flavor, everyone knows what to expect. It’s also a flavor that pairs very well with any spirit. Apple Pie is wonderfully versatile too, but I wouldn’t personally pair it with gin.
Do you have any plans for new flavors or products in the pipeline that you can talk about right now?
We launched a new line this year called our “Community Grown Flavors” which highlight things grown in local community gardens, urban farms and school gardens. The latest, Detroit Fig Leaf, is a beautiful flavor made using fig leaves grown at Henry Ford High School in Detroit. Additionally, we donate $1 per bottle back to the school’s gardening program.
We’ll be releasing more flavors in this line in the coming year. These tend to be smaller batches, but the flavors are unparalleled. We’re also hoping to bring back a fruit flavor next summer that we haven’t done in a few years featuring peaches and plums.
What's your goal with the business?
While I was on Shark Tank, Mark Cuban told me not to expand into other products types, to stay in this category and own it, be the best at Drinking Vinegars. That’s my goal. Do one thing and do it well.
What is one of your biggest challenges?
Typical small business challenges, but I trust my instincts. Just like when we’d R&D a new flavor, not every idea was a winner. The same can be said of running a small business in general. The key is surrounding yourself with a strong, smart, reliable team that can help you evaluate each move. My biggest strength is my team.
What was one of the most exciting moments for your brand?
I feel like I’m saying “Shark Tank” a lot! But seriously, it was really cool standing there, watching these sharks, holding my bottles and telling me how beautiful they are and what cool product I’ve made.
What’s your personal favorite way to drink shrubs?
I love tasting the new recipes that my team comes up with, but at the end of the day I like to keep it simple: a shot of bourbon, an ounce of apple pie and a few ounces of sparkling water (or ginger beer, if I have it) over ice. If I’ve got bitters lying around (which to be honest, I usually do), I top it with a dash of bitters. Mix. Drink. Repeat as necessary.