When thinking about cocktails, do these lovely ladies ever spring to mind?
Probably not! But did you know that the fine ladies of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement are a big part of why one of the world’s oldest cocktails—the shrub—is seeing a resurgence in bars today?
A Brief History of Shrub, America’s Forgotten Cocktail:
What is a shrub, you ask?
Well, in basic terms, a shrub is a fruit syrup mixed with vinegar that can be used to flavor drinks, alcoholic or not. The word shrub comes from the medieval Arabic word sharab, which means “drink” or “beverage,” and is etymologically related to sorbet, sherbet, and syrup (Diestch 22). At that time it referred primarily to a sweet non-alcoholic drink made of “preserved herbs, flowers, spices and fruit juices” simmered with “honey…and…sugar to form a thick, sweet concentrate” (Hall 49). Over time, this evolved into drinks flavored with sugar, rosewater, and lemon juice, plus “perfumed tablets” of many different flavors (Diestch 27).
Considered by some to be “the world’s first soft drink,” sharab changed into something new when Western European traders and sailors got hold of it in the seventeenth century. Combining a vinegary syrup of “citrus and sugar” with “rum or brandy,” sailors trasnformed shrub into an early form of punch (Deistch 27). This form of shrub was “served aboard trading ships and naval vessels” to ward off scurvy by giving sailors a dose of vitamin C—and to mask the taste of bad rum rations, as well as smuggled rum (Deitsch 27). Much like Prohibition booze, rum during the early 1700s was often made with industrial leftovers from the sugar production process, and usually tasted awful, so anything to mask the taste was welcome (Deistch 28-29).
Shrub reached American shores in 1716, when the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe carried shrub as part of their supplies from Virginia (Diestch 29-30). It quickly caught on big-time in Colonial America, with luminaries like Ben Franklin, Martha Washington, and Thomas Jefferson all crafting their own recipes (Ben liked orange shrub, Martha’s recipe calls for Cognac, and Thomas loved peaches).
But another kind of drink, known as “fruit vinegar,” was also becoming popular at this time. By the early 1800s, the rum or brandy-based shrub existed alongside “quick” fruit vinegar recipes that mostly consisted of “steeping fruit in vinegar for a long time, and then straining it off” and adding sugar (Diestch 36). Besides helping to preserve fruit in a time of limited refrigeration, these vinegar syrup recipes were seen as useful in helping to slake the thirst of those fighting off fevers or colds (Diestch 37). The New London Family Cookbook (1808) by Duncan MacDonald claimed that “raspberry vinegar…is one of the most useful preparations that can be in the house, not only as it affords a refreshing beverage, but being of singular efficacy in complaints of the chest” (Ibid).
By this point in history, then, shrub could refer to one of two kinds of drinks: a vinegar-laced fruit syrup mixed with “sugar, water, and other ingredients,” or “a blended drink made of fruit juice, sugar, and a spirit such as rum or brandy served cold and diluted with water” (Diestch 22). Over time, however, these terms would become interchangeable. By the 1800s, cookbooks referring to raspberry vinegar and raspberry shrub often meant the same thing, and by 1909 people were using “raspberry shrub” and “raspberry vinegar” to talk about the same beverage—which was understandable, seeing as the recipes for each were becoming much the same (Diestch 45).
This didn’t mean shrub’s alcoholic version was gone forever, though. Cocktail recipe books for bartenders from the late 1800s and early 1900s still contained a handful of alcoholic shrubs, mostly punches—and they rarely explained how to make the “shrub” part, which meant it must have been fairly common knowledge for bartenders. For example:
- A brandy shrub meant for 40 people and a currant shrub can be found in Tom Bullock‘s The Ideal Bartender (1917).
- Jerry Thomas‘ Bar-Tender’s Guide (1876) features cherry, white currant, and plain currant shrub, as well as raspberry, brandy, rum, and English rum shrub, all of which involve alcohol (mostly brandy).
- William Schmidt in The Flowing Bowl (1891) calls currant shrub “a kind of punch essence which…furnishes a very delicious drink,” especially when mixed with Jamaica rum.
It was the recipes for non-alcoholic shrubs, however, that were the most prolific—and eventually became the most popular. By the 1840s, one saw “fewer and fewer boozy shrubs in cookbooks…and more of the vinegar-based versions” (Diestch 40). Here are some examples of typical recipes:
- Mrs. Seely’s Cook Book (1914) features currant, lemon, and two recipes for raspberry shrub, right next to the fruit vinegar recipes.
- Choice Recipes (1924) by the Seattle Fruit and Flower Mission call raspberry shrub “a refreshing drink in summer.”
- A naval officer’s wife offers a recipe for raspberry shrub under a section labeled “summer drinks.”
- Interestingly, this recipe from Harriet Nelson’s Fruits And Their Cookery (1921) recommends adding shrub to “half a glass of ice water or lemonade,” harkening back to shrub’s naval roots.
- “A generation or two ago every housewife who prided herself upon her ability as a hostess was very sure to have in her cellar shrubs and fruit vinegars of many kinds,” wrote Bertha Stockbridge in her 1920 cookbook, What to Drink: The Blue Book of Beverages, Recipes and Directions for Making and Serving Non-Alcoholic Drinks for All Occasions (1920); she lists 10 recipes for vinegars and shrubs, including pineapple!
Shrub was also seen as a good drink for children. Patty Pans (1929), a delightful vintage cookbook geared towards children, encourages them to make their own shrub, and a 1922 guide for What to Serve at Parties lists “raspberry shrub” as part of a children’s party menu, right above “honey sandwiches of graham and white bread.”
Others, however, saw something else in shrub: an alternative to wine. Lydia Maria Child, author of The American Frugal Housewife, Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy (1838), deliberately mentioned raspberry shrub as a frugal alternative to wine that homemakers would be wise to adopt:
“Raspberry shrub mixed with water is a pure, delicious drink for summer; and in a country where raspberries are abundant, it is good economy to make it answer instead of Port and Catalonia wine.” (Childs 82)
Shrub found its true home, however, with Drys during the Temperance Movement. The drink “appealed greatly to Temperance-Era drinkers,” who could enjoy their “winey” flavor while still avoiding alcohol (Diestch 45). They could even point to Biblical passages that featured vinegar-based drinks, such as when soldiers offered Jesus “soured wine” during the Crucifixion, as a basis for championing their new drink. And it was so tasty, it had the possibility of converting Wets as well. As Jane Eddington pointed out in a 1919 Tribune article, current cocktails didn’t have that much alcohol in them to begin with, so cutting it out might not change much in the end:
“…charged water plus delicious and hauntingly flavored sirups, with fresh fruit for a garnish, will replace many of the mixed drinks which have often been but a little more than this anyway…a cherry or olive can just as well be at the bottom of the glass as when a pony of brandy or whisky, and the lemon “horseneck” does just as well for a temperance drink as for the other sort.” (Eddington, B3)
While the Temperance Movement embraced shrubs, once Prohibition ended and soda became the teetotaler’s drink of choice, shrub pretty much disappeared from public memory, bars included—until 2006, when food critic Eric Felten mentioned them in an article about barbecue cocktails for the Wall Street Journal. “The notion of putting any sort of vinegar in a drink may be counter-intuitive,” Felten wrote, “or even off-putting. But remember that cocktails generally strive for a balance between sweet and tart. In most drinks the tart comes from limes, lemons or other citrus; the vinegar in the Shrub serves the same purpose” (Felten, P10). He also mentioned Tait Food Farms, which has been producing its own bottled shrub mix since 1987, as a place to try some.
Then, two years later, reporter Toby Cecchini wrote an article for The New York Times about a “plum vinegar with soda” at Thai restaurant Pok Pok that was “a revelation: shockingly refreshing, tart and fruity, able to stand up to food and cleanse the palate like wine without being cloying. It seemed like the first truly adult non-alcoholic drink I’d ever had”—and adding booze to it didn’t hurt any, either (Cecchini, M2). He loved them immediately, and not only started making them himself, but “fobbing off bottles on puzzled friends,” encouraging them to try it for themselves (Ibid).
His article led to a bar-tending explosion. Thanks to Cecchini’s enthusiastic embrace, today you can find shrubs on cocktail menus across the country. Bartenders like them because they’re an easy way to add a lot of complex, interesting flavors to a drink—and today’s drinkers like them for much the same reason.
Screwy for Shrubs:
Another enthusiastic early adopter of shrubs is Michael Dietsch, whose book Shrubs: An Old-Fashioned Drink For Modern Times, overflows with unalloyed joy for the vinegary things.
He first fell in love with them on a particularly hot day at the 2008 Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans, when he had a cocktail composed of cachaça (a Brazillian liquor akin to rum), raspberry shrub, lime, and ginger ale. The drink was “balanced and refreshing,” with a tang that had him coming back for more (Dietsch, 15).
Then in 2010, two years later, his interest deepened—a lot. And just like Toby in 2008, he…
“…went on a shrub-making frenzy. I made shrubs out of every type of berry I could find, plus peaches, apricots, nectarines, and cherries. I had so many shrubs in the fridge at any given time that it was hard to fit anything else in there. My wife would open the door and a bottle of shrub would nearly tumble out onto the floor. She’d shoot dirty looks and sardonic comments my way…[but] those shrubs helped sustain her through her pregnancy when she couldn’t drink alcohol.” (Deistch, 16)
Ever since then he can’t seem to get enough of the damn things. Shrubs, he claims, are an amazing thing, simultaneously “an adult beverage” and “a soft drink,” and wonderful regardless of their alcohol content—especially during the summer (Deistch, 17). As he points out, “vinegar is incredibly good at quenching your thirst when it’s hot out. Research shows that sour-tasting beverages…are better at stimulating salivation than are other drinks. A wet mouth helps you feel hydrated even after you’re done drinking…[and] stimulates the appetite” (Dietsch, 15-16). Shrubs were also easy and fun to make: almost any type of fruit and vinegar could be used, leading to all sorts of interesting flavor combinations, and all you needed was a jar, some fruit, some vinegar, a lot of sugar, and a dark room to shove it all in. What could be easier than that?
But vinegar and fruit? Ugh. Sounds like drinking salad dressing!
And yet, there he was, singing their praises throughout the whole book. His enthusiasm made me wonder. What if shrubs were just as awesome as he said, and I was missing out on something that would make my cocktails really zing?
So, I decided to give it a try.
Time to make shrub! 🙂
Making Shrub, Round 1:
Now, before I begin my shrub making adventure, let me first explain that making shrub involves a few key decisions: what kind of fruit to use, what kind of vinegar to use as a base, and whether to make it hot or cold—all of which will affect the taste of your shrub. The outcomes for these various decisions are explained in detail here at Serious Eats, but just know that there’s more than one way of going about making a shrub.
Personally, however, I wanted an authentic, vintage shrub-making experience, and I didn’t care if it took weeks, either—so I turned to Deitsch’s beautiful book.
After flipping through Shrubs: An Old-Fashioned Drink For Modern Times, I settled on his recipe for “Strawberry Pepper Shrub” as a good place to begin—mostly because I had a lot of strawberries in my fridge at the time, and a lot of pepper in my cabinet. It also sounded rather enticing. He described the flavor as follows: “On your first sip, the main flavor is strawberry, but as you swallow the shrub, the pepper startles the back of your tongue and lingers, subtly, on the finish” (Dietsch, 168).
Sounds pretty good, right?
His recipe is as follows:
1 1/2 cups (8 ounces) strawberries, hulled and quartered
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
1 cup apple cider vinegar
- Place strawberries, sugar, and pepper into a large jar. Tighten lid, and then shake to combine.
- Place in refrigerator. Allow to macerate for at least 2 hours and up to 1 day.
- Add vinegar, tighten lid, shake, and return to fridge for an additional 2 days.
- position a fine-mesh strainer over a small bowl and pour the mixture through to remove the solids.
- combine strained syrup with vinegar. Whisk well to incorporate any undissolved sugar.
- pour syrup-and-vinegar mixture into a clean mason jar. Cap it, shake it well to incorporate any undissolved sugar, and place in the refrigerator for a week before using (Ibid).
VERDICT: Godawful! :p
Whatever I made, it wasn’t shrub—more like salad dressing. Instead of the pleasant taste of strawberries, all I got was pepper and vinegar. Ugh!
What had I done wrong? I wasn’t sure, but I decided to try again.
So I went out and bought more strawberries. I mashed them up this time, thinking that releasing more strawberry juice might help the flavor. I also added more sugar, hoping it might soften the tang of the vinegar as well.
VERDICT: Even worse than last time! 😦
Not one of my changes worked. The whole thing was pepper and vinegar with barely a hint of strawberries, worse even than drinking salad dressing.
I’d failed twice now, but I was determined to succeed. Maybe it was time to switch recipes instead…?
Round 3: SUCCESS!!!
By this time I was out of strawberries, so I decided to try raspberries instead. Their natural combination of sweet and sour, plus the fact that most of the vintage cookbooks I’d looked at usually only featured raspberry shrub, made me think it was probably the best choice. So, I looked for a simple, decent modern recipe. Emily Han’s excellent book Wild Drinks and Cocktails (2015) had a few shrub recipes, and they looked easier than Dietsch’s ones, so I picked out a simple one for Raspberry Shrub and gave it a go.
Her recipe was like this:
2 cups raspberries
1 cup Champagne vinegar
1 cup red wine vinegar
2 cups sugar (I added some extra, feeling leery from last time)
- Place raspberries in bowl and crush with fork, then transfer to sterilized jar
- Pour vinegars into jar, making sure all raspberries are submerged
- Wipe down and cover jar and store in cool, dark place for 1 week, shaking daily (I stored it in my basement, and only shook it every other day. The lack of shaking didn’t effect the outcome much it seemed)
- After 1 week, strain the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer and discard solids. Combine mixture with sugar, seal, and refrigerate for 1 week, shaking daily to help dissolve sugar (Han, 100).
VERDICT: Excellent! 😀
This shrub was terrific, with the right balance of sweet and tangy—though I did modify it slightly by adding probably 1/4 a cup of extra sugar, and letting it sit for a few extra days, in an attempt to let the flavor get stronger. Neither of these things were detrimental, however. While it had to be shaken quite a lot before use in order to dislodge my extra sugar, which tended to settle, it tasted great, with a very nice combination of bitter and sweet—and got even better when I added gin! 😀
Basically, I added 1 ounce of gin to 1 ounce of shrub, added some water, and a lemon peel—and I was not disappointed. I’m not a huge fan of gin either, but the shrub made it palatable for me.
FINAL VERDICT OVERALL: If you’ve got some time on your hands and are looking for a new addition to your cocktails, you should give shrub a try! And if you don’t feel like making it yourself, vendors like Shrub & Co offer all kinds of shrub in all kinds of fun flavors. Seems like Dietsch and his fellow boosters are right after all: shrubs are good! 🙂
What about you, dear readers? Have you ever tried shrub? If not, would you? Or does the idea of mixing vinegar and fruit with booze disgust you to the core? Please Comment below! 😀
I’d love to see your recipes, or hear what you think of this unusual, vintage drink.