If you’re looking for an unusual, tasty beverage to serve this holiday season, look back into our history to rediscover shrubs. A shrub is a concentrated syrup made from three ingredients: fruit, vinegar and sweetener. It is traditionally mixed with water to make a sweet-tart drink. It also makes an excellent cocktail. Because shrubs can be enjoyed with or without alcohol, they are a great addition to the holiday bar. Party-goers can pick their flavors and mix their own drinks.
The shrubs we enjoy today have been adapted from a 17th century English technique of preserving fruit and vegetables in vinegar. Colonial Americans, in the heat of summer, quickly recognized the thirst-quenching benefits of these flavored vinegars. The drinks became so popular that you can find their recipes in the cookbooks of Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Mary Randolph.
In the 19th century, supporters of the temperance movement hoped shrubs would become the alternative to alcoholic drinks. Unfortunately for them, shrubs are also delicious mixed with gin, vodka and whiskey. Eventually, as refrigeration became accessible to all and sugary carbonated beverages gained popularity, shrubs fell out of favor.
Historically, vinegar drinks were believed to bring down fevers and prevent scurvy, and traveling medicine shows marketed them as health tonics. While these health claims haven’t been validated, the National Institutes of Health has studied the medicinal effects of apple cider vinegar and fermented foods, and found them to have anti-tumor effects. They also have had promising results in reducing cholesterol and triglycerides, the main constituents of body fat. Keep in mind that any potential health benefits are reduced by the cooking process as well as the type and amount of sweetener you add. Although you can safely add shrubs to your diet, it should not be your first line of nutritional defense.
Cold-Processed and Fermented Shrubs
1. Slice or gently mash 1 cup of fruit(s) in a nonreactive bowl.
2. Add 1 cup of sweetener and stir gently to combine. Cover with a clean cloth and leave on the counter for up to 3 days, stirring daily.
3. Once fruit becomes very juicy, strain juice into a clean (sterilization is not necessary) container. Discard fruit solids.
4. Add an equal amount of vinegar to syrup. Bottle in a sterilized (drop into boiling water for 10 minutes or run through sterilize cycle in dishwasher), narrow-neck jar and store in refrigerator, where it will last up to 6 months.
Quick and Easy Hot-Processed Shrubs
1. Make a simple syrup by combining 1 cup of sweetener and 1 cup of water in a medium saucepan set over low heat, stirring until sweetener is dissolved.
2. Add sliced or chopped fruit(s) and bring mixture to a low simmer. Allow to simmer until syrup takes on the color of the fruit, about 20 minutes.
3. Stir in 1 cup of vinegar and bring mixture back to a simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
4. Strain syrup into a sterilized, narrow-neck jar, discarding fruit solids, and store in refrigerator for up to 6 months.
Choosing Shrub Ingredients
Because shrubs contain so few ingredients, it’s critical to use ingredients of the highest quality. When choosing vinegars, start with organic apple cider vinegar, the only type of vinegar proven to have health benefits. It has a refreshingly tart taste that is not too sharp, and it pairs well with a variety of fruits. Wine vinegars, champagne vinegar, or a mix of cider and balsamic vinegar are also delicious. (Many commercial vinegars contain inferior ingredients; check the ingredient list.)
Use fresh fruit at the peak of ripeness, and wash it thoroughly before using. For depth of flavor, consider adding an herb that complements your fruit. Rosemary pairs well with peaches and apples. Thyme is delicious with figs and melons, and mint goes well with berries and stone fruits (such as peaches, nectarines and plums).
Most people use refined white sugar to make shrubs, but feel free to experiment with any non-artificial sweetener you enjoy. Honey, agave nectar, coconut sugar and brown sugar all give good results. Artificial sweeteners should not be used as they do not dissolve well and negatively affect the flavor.
The final ingredient is the mixer. Seltzer water makes a great bubbly non-alcoholic drink—try equal parts seltzer and shrub syrup. For cocktails, try various types of gin, vodka and whiskey, combining equal amounts of shrub syrup and alcohol. For a lighter drink, combine shrub syrup, alcohol and seltzer in equal amounts. Serve over ice.