By Rosie DeQuattro / 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.
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Rosie DeQuattro is a regular contributor to Edible Boston. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @rosiedequattro, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.