Drinking vinegars and shrubs may seem like something of the past, relegated in the 17th and 18th century Colonial Era. They might also conjure unpleasant images of drinking an astringent, sour liquid, leaving one to wonder why anyone would want to dedicate time to producing something so seemingly disagreeable. Luckily, many small-batch drinking vinegar producers have arrived in recent years to flip that false assumption on its head. As craft cocktails and inventive new gastronomic techniques make a comeback, you might be seeing drinking vinegars pop up in more and more liquor stores and specialty shops. For Jess McClary of McClary Bros., creating drinking vinegars was the best way to preserve and deepen the relationships she had built with local farmers while her Detroit business was still a bakery. Creating vinegars also allowed her to scale her business as new restaurants, bars, and specialty grocers began moving into her city. The result of her hard work results is a locally sourced, organic, and delightfully refreshing drink mixer (or cooking ingredient!) that is as versatile as it is expectation-defying.
We were fortunate enough to be able to take a tour of this business and chat with Jess about the unique history of her small business and what inspires her. Read on below!
Photography by: Ali Lapetina
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your business.
I started McClary Bros. while I was in culinary school in 2012. Originally, it started as a home-based bakery and I was baking while caring for my twin boys who were two-years-old at the time. Naturally I named the business after them. I wanted them to grow up having their name on something that made them proud. In the past 5 years, the business has evolved away from the baking and our family grew to include a McClary sister!
You originally opened McClary Bros. as a bakery. What convinced you to pivot from baking to shrub-making?
Baking for me was a tool to help me navigate the local food entrepreneur community and really get a handle on starting a small business on a manageable, low-risk scale. Home-based businesses really empower the entrepreneur to go at their own pace. It was not, however, my long-term plan. I’m an excessively ambitious person and I have very big plans for a business that I could really scale up and I didn’t see the baking taking me in that direction. The really important factor for me became the relationships I was building with local farmers. While I knew I wouldn’t be baking forever, I didn’t want to stop sourcing from local growers.
How are your drinking vinegars made?
Sorry, I can’t share all of our secrets! While our specific process in proprietary, we take extra effort to ensure that the mother contained in our vinegar remains intact for the best tasting, highest quality of vinegar available.
You source the ingredients for your vinegars locally. What has the experience of working with regional farmers been like?
Our growers are some of the closest vendor relationships we have and that’s critical. Responsible sourcing isn’t just about labels and certifications, it’s about trust. We trust our farmers because we know where and how they grow what they sell.
How do you convince people who might not be converted on the drinking vinegar concept?
Drinking vinegar is food, not poison — so try it! One of the greatest experiences we all can have is discovering a new taste or flavor that we never realized we love. Which is beside the fact, because honestly vinegar is in so many things that people don’t realize how accustomed they likely already are to the flavor profile.
What’s your favorite way to drink your vinegars?
Honestly, my favorite way to use my drinking vinegars isn’t drinking them, but cooking with them. I certainly enjoy an occasional Kentucky Mule made with our Lemon & Ginger Drinking Vinegar, but I use the vinegars every day in salad dressings, coleslaw, marinades, soups and smoothies. Vinegar is versatile!
Top 5 places everybody needs to visit in Detroit?
1. Eastern Market on a Saturday — it’s the country’s oldest continuously running, open-air farmers market and it’s amazing! There’s farmers, small food producers, food trucks, music and the entrepreneurs that are all local, so the money you spend there stays in the community (and you can also find and sample your favorite Drinking Vinegar, wink wink).
2. Detroit Vegan Soul. Hands-down the best vegan meal I’ve had. With soul food this good, who needs meat?
3. The Farmer’s Hand. An all-local grocery, yes please!
4. Good Cakes and Bakes. All bakeries/coffee shops should be as community focused as this one. Not your typical tourist spot but a true gem in the heart of Detroit.
5. The Avenue of Fashion. While your at Good Cakes and Bakes, take a stroll through the neighborhood. Not just great fashion as the name suggests, this neighborhood has been booming with a surge of great shops, restaurants and art galleries. Not to be missed!