Former Orchids chef shifts his focus to fresh, flavorful cocktail mixers called 'shrubs'
Queen City Shrub sells them in milk jugs
Grace S. Yek | WCPO contributor
12:00 PM, Mar 20, 2017
CINCINNATI -- Former Orchids banquet chef Justin Frazer is applying his chef’s sensibilities on a different craft these days: making cocktail mixers. He's on a mission to punch up our drinking experience by packing maximum flavor and freshness into his brand of mixers.
"It's a very clean and bright product and you get the subtle nuances of the fruit," Frazer said. "It's all natural and there are no additives or preservatives to mask the flavor."
Also known as "shrubs," these mixers are made with three key ingredients: fruit, sugar and vinegar. Shrubs were popular in colonial times as a way to preserve fruit. Now, they act as starting points for crafting a wide range of cocktails and even sodas.
"It's crazy how many flavors you can get from such simple ingredients," Frazer said. "It's literally grapefruit, sugar, a little bit of water and white wine vinegar," he said, referring to the Pink Grapefruit mixer. Frazer said his most popular mixer, the Ras El Hanout Haymaker, has honey, apple cider vinegar and a spice blend that includes warm spices like cinnamon, peppercorns and even saffron.
In keeping with his wholesome approach, he's chosen to package the shrubs in milk jug bottles, something he feels "harkens back to old times."
Frazer's startup company, Queen City Shrub, offers five flavors -- three of which are year-round (Hibiscus Coriander, Ras El Hanout Haymaker and Lemon) and two rotating seasonal flavors. Currently, they are Pink Grapefruit and Kiwi, but he's already exploring other flavors like rhubarb, watermelon and cherries.
Frazer creates the shrubs sans heat to better capture the fruit flavors, down to the essential oils of the fruit peels and tannins from the seeds.
"The fruit and sugar are macerated and then vinegar added," he said.
While shrubs are easy enough to make, it's not so easy to get it right. Frazer thinks some commercial shrubs are too vinegar-forward which can be off-putting, or in some cases, muddled because of the use of heat in the processing.
"A lot of them are not very balanced," he said.
Frazer admitted to being somewhat persnickety when it comes to flavors.
"We chefs like balanced flavors," he said. "I'm after fresh, seasonal and vibrant flavors."
A second career
Born and raised in Middletown, Frazer got a degree in marketing and management from Ohio Northern University. He went into sales after graduation but wasn't happy.
"I always knew I wanted to get into food," he said.
He went on to pursue a culinary degree at Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina; however, he changed course when he landed an internship with the renowned Farmer Lee Jones at The Chef's Garden in Huron, Ohio.
"Lee gave me a recommendation to work at Orchids," he recalled. "I started at the bottom as a prep cook and worked my way up."
Orchids at Palm Court is a fine-dining establishment inside the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza.
In the four years he was there, he rose to the rank of banquet chef, alternating between garde manger (cold foods) and hot. Frazer stumbled on shrub-making when he was tasked with making a signature drink for a party at the hotel -- a first of many.
Todd Kelly, the hotel's executive chef and director of food and beverage said, "Justin made all of our shrubs while he was here at the hotel."
Frazer continued experimenting with different shrubs outside of work and bottled up small batches to "test" on his friends.
"I made 20 to 30 different shrubs in one cycle," he recalled, laughing.
The response to his mixers was overwhelmingly positive. In November last year, Frazer left Orchids to start Queen City Shrub. Currently, he works out of Findlay Kitchen, an incubator kitchen near Findlay Market.
True to many startups, he's a one-man band, doing everything from production to bottling to marketing and sales. Frazer hopes to expand Queen City Shrub's presence in the city's retail outlets, bars and restaurants. The shrubs are currently available at Findlay Market's Dirt: A Modern Market and the bar at Orchids.
"We currently have a cocktail featuring the Pink Grapefruit shrub with rosemary, vodka, lemon, and bitters," Kelly said. "Justin's products are made with very high-quality ingredients at the peak of the season. His sourcing and dedication to the craftsmanship of making shrubs shows in the final product."
In the coming year, Frazer hopes also to offer his product as a ready-to drink soda. The driven entrepreneur favors starting work at 4 or 5 a.m.
"I'm probably working more than I ever did, but I'm having fun," Frazer said.
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Grace Yek writes about food for WCPO.com. She is a certified chef-de-cuisine with the American Culinary Federation, and a former chemical engineer. Questions or comments? Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek