By Warren Bobrow @warrenbobrow
When is a shrub not a shrub? When is a drink a plant? The quick answer is never, but these acidulated beverages are as old as history itself.
In my recently released book, Bitters and Shrub Syrup Cocktails, I revealed the secrets of these refreshing beverages and attempted to introduce a flavor profile from the past into the modern era of creative mixology. But first, what is a shrub?
A Shrub is in simple terms a mixer that is included in both mocktails (cocktails without the kick) and craft cocktails. In the days before refrigeration, it was pretty evident that without some means for food preservation, keeping items fresh was difficult at best. Gastric blockages from eating food that was less than pure was the norm and people just didn’t live long because of food borne illnesses.
Back in the times of the Egyptians, where the roots were sown for the argument that food and drinks were less injurious when they didn’t poison the imbiber. Food borne illnesses could be prevented or at least minimized by the use of an acid. In this case, the combination of vinegar and sugar when added to either fruit or vegetables contributed to the rudimentary food preservation system that existed to modern days.
Ethnic groups have long practiced food preservation methods and the use of vinegar is a major catalyst for adding both spark and health to the end result. This is of course the refreshing kick that comes from drinking beverages, (and to a lesser extent) eating foods that are preserved with vinegar. But why vinegar?
Vinegar is a powerful preservative and it also adds to digestion. The acid layer that enrobes the sweet sumptuousness of the often less than freshly picked fruit is beguiling in a liquid form, giving each sweet and tangy sip a depth unheard of prior. And the end result is good health for the entire digestive tract. Vinegar, after all, is what adds balance to the body.
Have you ever felt less than healthy from eating heavy food? Take a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar and add it to a glass of fizzy water, drink it down and feel better quickly.
Fast forward to the Colonial era when intoxicants were less than high quality and masking the often assertive aromas of poorly made liquors led to the invention of something named punch. Punch was a combination of acid, to sweet, to savory – all meant to intoxicate the drinker with a minimum of effort. Students from the Northeastern states discovered that adding vinegar preserved fruits to their spirituous beverages made for a refreshing drink, one packed full of health giving ingredients that were good for the gut.
Was this vinegar based Shrub the original health drink? Certainly, it was used for good health, right up to the time when soda pop was invented. And soda pop as we all know, spelled out the demise of the Shrub until just recently when a resurgence of old methods took place in the mixology bar. Then add to that classic a voluminous portion of THC? Isn’t that irresponsible? No one said you had to drink the entire drink you know.
Flavors from our modest shrub are what forced the mixologists of today to unlock the secrets of piquancy and good cheer!
Shrubs are simply made with only three ingredients, fruit (or a vegetable), sugar and some type of vinegar. Here is a simple recipe for a Shrub that can be produced in about a week using easily acquired ingredients. It does have to be aged after the mashing of fruit, sugar and vinegar- but that timing is really up to you. It can age quickly overnight using balsamic vinegar, or the old-fashioned way. Often taking several weeks, slowly fermenting in a ceramic jug in the cellar.
I call this Shrub the Squire’s Shrub. It is a very easy Shrub to master. This is, in actuality- the preference for a softer (to the palate), yet pleasingly tangy- end result with or without an intoxicating hit of liquor or the addition of THC.
It’s true, the Squire’s Shrub does require a couple of extra steps, but I promise it’s worth your while: Your patience will be rewarded with a lush, crimson colored syrup that’s straight out of the eighteenth century, when America was in its infancy and early pharmacists would have relied on their gardens to supply the basis for their healing tonics. (Rhubarb has been used as a digestive aid for thousands of years.) There’s nothing difficult to it, though, beyond a little extra mixing, and caramelizing your fruit before making the shrub. The vinegar’s high acidity cuts through the sumptuous, charred, caramelized flavor of the roasted strawberries and rhubarb, making it a seductive addition to gin and rhum-based libations.
Recipe: The Squire’s Shrub
- 2 cups (340 g) Roasted Strawberries and Rhubarb
- 1 cup (200 g) Demerara sugar
- 1 cup (235 ml) light colored balsamic vinegar
- Time: 3–4 weeks.
- Add the roasted strawberries and rhubarb to a nonreactive bowl.
- Cover with the sugar, stir to combine, and cover it with plastic wrap.
- Leave at cool room temperature for 24 hours.
- Stir frequently during this time to combine as the berries and rhubarb give off their liquid.
- Place a nonreactive strainer above a second nonreactive bowl, pour the fruit-sugar mixture into the strainer, and use a wooden spoon to mash the mixture in order to release as much liquid as possible. (Reserve the mashed fruit to use in cooking or baking, if you like.)
- Add the balsamic vinegar to the liquid, stir, and let the mixture sit for a few hours. Funnel into sterilized bottles or jars, and age for 3–4 weeks in the refrigerator.
This shrub will last nearly indefinitely, but if it begins to quiver, foam, ooze, change color to blue, then begin dancing and speaking in foreign languages, throw it out.
Add a few ounces of the Squire’s Shrub to a glass of cool seltzer water for a refreshing pick me up or add to a portion of THC infused gin and a slurp of Rhum Agricole to make a proper weed cocktail.
This Shrub is for good health!