Pucker Up! Shrubs Come Out of the Closet

Photo by Michael Piazza

To all you closet vinegar drinkers out there I say: Come out, come out wherever you are. The shrub is back!

A class of beverage also known as a drinking vinegar, the shrub was among our early forefathers’ and foremothers’ ready assortment of tipples. Others—the posset, the bumbo, the switchel, the mobby and sack—are gone. But the shrub is enjoying new life in 21st century America. Its resurrection has our current craft cocktail culture to thank; that, and the dedication of creative bartenders, entrepreneurs, and home cooks across the country to revive old recipes and experiment with flavors. Bravo to them!

One of these is Sam Treadway, Bar Manager at Backbar in Somerville. “Cocktail geeks like to utilize flavors and techniques from the past,” he says. Before canning and refrigeration became widespread, vinegar and sugar were used to preserve fruit, “so you can enjoy the flavors of summer later.” In his bar, Treadway creates infusions of fresh fruit, sugar, and vinegar (which is all a shrub is), and uses them in cocktails. It allows him to “stay fresh, local, organic and still offer someone a raspberry lime rickey in October.”

A whole new generation of mixologists these days keeps well-stocked apothecaries behind their bars—bitters, shrubs, herbs, spices, roots, barks, not to mention fruits and veggies—are all used to add flavor and dimension to cocktails.

Tracey Brown is another revivalist. Brown is the owner of the small-batch food company, Vine & Brown, in Amesbury, and recently began selling a line of shrubs in 14 different flavors. She loves hearing how her customers use her shrubs in their own kitchens. For Brown, it’s all about “other people being able to take our products and have fun with them.” She adds shrub to Prosecco. And if you’re serving tea-totalers, she suggests, you can still offer them a cocktail (mocktail?) in a pretty glass—just offer them a little shrub with sparkling water.

At Eastern Standard, in Boston, Bar Programs Liaison, Bob McCoy, eagerly awaits spring when he’ll once again make his strawberry and rhubarb shrub for the restaurant. “What’s old is new again,” he tells me. “We’re looking back to the past, into old cocktail books, to what was popular then.” Shrubs, he says, can lend a signature dimension to a bar’s cocktail program. McCoy says they have become very popular over the last couple of years and, he adds, “we actually had an entire section on the cocktail menu dedicated to shrubs last fall.”

The word shrub comes from the Arabic word sharab, meaning, to drink. Throughout history the shrub has enjoyed various interpretations across Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas. The earliest definition describes it as an acidulated beverage made from the juice of fruit, sugar, and alcohol. Today it is most commonly made from fruit, sugar, and vinegar. Its culinary uses are only limited by one’s imagination. In salad dressings and marinades, it provides just the right snap of sweet and sour. In a cocktail, it adds “an additional salty/acidic bite that dries out a cocktail in a balanced way” says Treadway.

Treadway says shrub has “a flavor that modern palates are not used to, so it has a pleasant surprise factor.” If, like me, you are one of those who secretly crave the face-scrunching pucker of vinegar, shrubs can be swigged right out of the bottle, which is what I suspect colonial Americans did, as they never seemed to miss an opportunity to tank up.

Introduced to our shores by the booze-loving Brits, shrubs have a nefarious history, and it all started with smuggling. According to Diffordsguide, an online and print publisher of drinks-related guidebooks, brandy purchased in mainland Europe was a fifth of the price of that purchased in England. So in 17th-century England, in order to avoid high import taxes levied on mainland European luxury goods like tea, rum, brandy, and genever (a juniper-flavored liquor from which gin evolved), smugglers hid shipments of these luxury goods along the craggy, uninhabited coast of Devon and Cornwall where revenue men were not likely to patrol. Everyone in the coastal communities, including the landed-gentry, participated in the subterfuge. It is estimated that six bottles of brandy per resident were routinely smuggled. The smuggled barrels were dropped off in remote coves and often sunk into the shore waters to avoid detection by the tax authorities. Then the goods were transported by way of clandestine tunnels and passageways dug into the rocky shore, and recovered sometime later when, quite literally, the coast was clear (of the tax man)! Sometimes, rafts were created out of the barrels and were floated in on the surf. And wouldn’t you know it, seawater got into the barrels, fouling the taste of the rum or brandy or whatever spirit was contained within. The popularity and utility of shrubs rose during this time, when their addition to seawater-fouled spirits masked that briny, salty flavor. Typically, the antidote to the bad taste was a shrub made of citrus fruit, sugar, and good, unpolluted brandy.

It didn’t take much to convince our own early citizens of shrubs’ value. United States government figures from 1790 show that annual per-capita alcohol consumption for a person over the age of 15 was five gallons of distilled spirits, in addition to 34 gallons of beer and a gallon of wine. (By comparison, the per-capita consumption of pure alcohol in the US in 2007 was around 2.3 gallons). During this time, there was a pervasive fear of polluted drinking water, a fear inherited from the British who were well educated in the ill effects of filthy waterways. The US was characterized then as a hot climate, and physicians cautioned that drinking ice water would cause indigestion and other more serious problems. Alcohol and vinegar-based drinks were thought to be healthful and restorative, to aid digestion, increase strength, and bring down fevers. Whiskey was taken for colic and for laryngitis. There were brandy punches for cholera; rum-soaked cherries for a cold; vinegar tonics to prevent scurvy. Drinking vinegar cooled farmers working in fields under the hot sun, and sailors on long sea voyages.

Today shrubs are increasingly sold commercially for various culinary uses, and provide a jolt of flavor where, when, and however you need it. Whether you mix it in a cocktail or take it straight up on a spoon (and I suspect there are a lot of you out there!), shrubs are back.


The Shrub

From the first cookbook printed in the United States, The Compleat Housewife by Eliza Smith, originally published in London in 1797.

To make shrub take two quarts of brandy, and put it in a large bottle, adding to it the juice of five lemons, the peels of two, and half a nutmeg; stop it up and let it stand three days, and add to it three pints of white wine, a pound and a half of sugar; mix it, strain it twice through flannel, and bottle it up; it is a pretty wine, and a cordial.

Bob McCoy is the Beverage Programs Liaison at Eastern Standard, Eastern Standard Kitchen and Drinks, Island Creek Oyster Bar, The Hawthorne, and the Hotel Commonwealth Private Events. His Strawberry Shrub is used in the drink called Serenissima.

1 ounce Beefeater Gin (or other London Dry Gin)
1 ounce Aperol
1 ounce strawberry shrub*
1½ ounces sparkling wine (such as Prosecco or Cava)
1½ ounces soda water
1 lemon twist, for serving

Mount in a highball over ice and roll (rolling refers to pouring the drink from the highball into a second glass, then back into the highball in order to blend the ingredients while maintaining the effervescence of the soda and wine). Garnish with a lemon twist.

*Strawberry Shrub

32 ounces strawberries, stemmed and sliced
28 ounces sugar
32 ounces white balsamic vinegar
4 teaspoons green cardamom
4 teaspoons coriander
4 teaspoons black peppercorns

Place the strawberries into a food-safe container. Add the sugar and stir to incorporate. Cover and store in the fridge or a cool place for 2-3 days, stirring every day, until the sugar is completely dissolved and resembles a syrup. Add the vinegar and stir.

Using a spice grinder, roughly grind the spices, add them to the mixture, and stir again to incorporate. Store in the refrigerator for at least 5-7 days, stirring and tasting daily. Once the flavors have mellowed and combined, finely strain the shrub, bottle, and store in the refrigerator between uses.

Tangerine Dream 
Sam Treadway, Bar Manager of Backbar in Somerville, makes a Tangerine-Carrot Shrub and uses it in Tangerine Dream.

2 ounces gin
6 ounces tangerine-carrot shrub*
1 carrot
fine sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

At Backbar, Sam carbonates and bottles this cocktail, and to serve it, he pops open the bottle like a beer, pours it into a champagne flute, and garnishes with a carrot ribbon soaked in a salt and pepper tincture.

At home, we suggest serving the mix of gin and shrub over ice, topped off with some sparkling water for fizz. For something close to Sam’s garnish, top off the cocktail with a carrot ribbon (made using a vegetable peeler) sprinkled with fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

*Tangerine-Carrot Shrub

8 ounces tangerine juice
8 ounces carrots juice
2 cups cane sugar
⅔ cup white wine vinegar

Stir the juices, sugar, and vinegar together and measure the total amount of liquid. Add double this volume in water and stir to dissolve the sugar. Refrigerate until ready to use in your cocktail.

Lemon Lime Shrub 
Here is a lemon-lime shrub recipe from Tracey Brown at Vine & Brown, a local producer of shrubs and other culinary products. The shrub can be used in a beverage or a dressing.

2 limes
2 lemons
2 cups cane sugar
2 cups white wine vinegar

Cut the limes and lemons into thin slices and place in a glass or stainless steel bowl, being careful to capture all the juice. Add the sugar and stir to coat the fruit.

Cover and place in the refrigerator for 2 or 3 days, stirring once daily. You will notice the juice from the fruit has blended with the sugar.

At the end of the second or third day, add the vinegar and stir. Allow the vinegar and fruit mixture to mingle for several days.  The tartness of the vinegar softens with the fruit syrup. Once that occurs, strain out the fruit using a 2-part process: for the first strain, use a mesh strainer over a bowl. Pour the fruit and liquid mixture into the strainer to remove the bulk of the fruit. Squeeze the fruit with your hands to release all the juice.

Next, strain the liquid through cheesecloth draped over a bowl; this will remove any additional fruit particles and leave you with a sweet and tart liquid.

Pour into a clean, sterilized glass bottle and refrigerate.

Feel free to experiment with other vinegars, such as apple cider or balsamic. Herbs and spices can also be added to create different flavor profiles.

This story appeared in the Spring 2014 issue.