Offering to pour someone a shrub usually requires an explanation. Clearly the noun is not referring to the leafy bush. But just what is a shrub? Why would you want to drink one?
The answer to the first question has a surprisingly long history. Mixologist Warren Bobrow calls drinking shrubs “the original energy drinks” and dates them back to the 1800s. The combination of vinegar, water, and sweetener gave farmworkers a refreshing boost while in the field. Then farmers discovered they could expand the range of flavors using their harvest and the preserving properties of vinegar and sugar. Add carbonated water, and the first soft drinks were born. But these aren’t our contemporary, corn syrupy sodas: shrubs, aka drinking vinegars, capture the bright flavors of fresh fruits and vegetables at the peak of their season.
Raw shrubs take little time to prepare but need a bit of foresight. The wait for cold processing means you don’t need to heat the shrub and lose some of its flavorful pop, a particular advantage with delicately flavored fruits like citrus and kiwi. They usually need 1–3 days to get to their final form but often taste best when left for at least a week. But shrubs last a long time too—I’m told up to a year, but I’ve never been able to keep one around that long.
This shrub recipe is a concentrate; you’ll want to dilute it to enjoy it. The simplest method is to pour 1/2 ounce of shrub into an 8-ounce or larger glass, top it with sparkling water or seltzer, and then add more shrub until you get a balance you like. Or upgrade your bar by using the shrub as the base for a cocktail.
1 pound of fresh fruit, such as berries, stone or pome fruits, melons, or tomatoes
1/2–3/4 cup sweetener
herbs or spices to taste
3/4 cup vinegar
Chop or grate the fruit as needed, removing any inedible seeds or pits. Add the fruit, sweetener, and any flavorings to a large bowl or jar; stir to combine. Cover the container and place it in the refrigerator for 1 day to macerate, or let the sugar release the juices from the fruit.
Set a fine-mesh colander over a bowl. Pour the fruit mixture into the strainer, in stages if needed, and let it drain. Pour the vinegar over the fruit in the colander so that it rinses any undissolved sugar into the syrup; squeeze or press the fruit as needed to remove as much liquid as possible. Set the fruit solids aside. Pour the liquid into a clean pint canning jar or 350-mL bottle; cap, and then shake well to combine. Refrigerate, waiting at least a day and ideally a week before using (see below). The shrub will keep refrigerated for up to a year. Makes about 1-1/2 cups.
Tips & Tricks
- Like many Twice as Tasty recipes, the ingredients you can use to make shrubs vary widely. For fruits, my favorite shrubs have been strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, apple–cranberry, rhubarb, and tomatoes. The same ratios can be used with vegetables, including cucumber and beets.
- You can also choose your favorite sweetener for the mix. But with raw shrubs, finer-grained sweeteners macerate more easily, particularly at fridge temperatures. If the sugar you choose won’t work its way into the fruit, next time create a simple syrup to pour over the raw fruit.
- By removing pits and cores and adding the vinegar after you’ve drained the liquid from the sweetened fruit, you can put the leftover fruit solids to use. They’re delicious stirred into smoothies or hot cereals, spooned over ice cream or sorbet, or blended into baked treats.
- Choose your vinegar based on your fruit. Apple cider vinegar is my go-to, but red wine vinegar works beautifully with berries and white wine vinegar is ideal for delicate fruits and melons. A combination works as well: Strawberry–Black Peppercorn Shrub with 1/2 cup cider vinegar and 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar is one of my favorite spring blends.
- A pinch of herbs and spices adds a surprising amount of depth to a shrub. Grab sprigs of fresh herbs and whole spices when you can; they’re easier to remove from the blend once their flavor has set in.
- The amount of sweetener and vinegar can be adjusted not only to taste but also to the fruit. If you’re adding citrus zest or using a tart fruit, consider boosting the sugar by 1/4 cup. If you’re using ultrasweet fruit, cut it back by the same amount.
Twice as Tasty
I first started creating and drinking shrubs as a nonalcoholic option for summer afternoons otherwise enjoyed with a cold beer. I still drink most of my shrubs without liquor: the flavors are so delicious I don’t miss a vodka, rum, or other light alcohol. But the modern attraction to shrubs has been growing with the craft cocktail movement, and they make fabulous mixers.
Whether you’re looking to craft your own favorite classic cocktail from scratch or create a bold new flavor to go with your favorite alcohol, look no further than shrubs. My shrub collection changes with the season, and whatever flavors I have on hand tend to enhance a range of alcohol types. The basic recipe here will get you started, but be sure to experiment with bottles from your favorite distillery. Or gather a few flavors, a couple of types of alcohol, and some friends; you’ll have an instant cocktail party.
Basic Shrub Cocktail
1 ounce Raw-Fruit Shrub
2 ounces alcohol
ice cubes as needed
a splash to 2 ounces of soda water
Pour the shrub and alcohol into a 6- to 8-ounce glass. Stir to combine, add ice and then soda water, and stir again. Serve on the rocks, or strain the now-chilled beverage into a second glass. Serves 1.
Tips & Tricks
- Although you can shake a shrub-base cocktail, you’ll see and taste little difference in your glass between shaking and stirring, because the raw ingredients in the shrub are already well blended. So start simple and just give it a stir.
- Whether to serve your cocktail on the rocks or strained is another matter: Leaving the ice in the drink will water it down as the cubes melt. This may be exactly the effect you want with the acidic bite of shrub, or you might want to strain off the chilled drink and keep that strong flavor until the end.
- I recommend starting with the balance in this recipe but being prepared to adapt it to each drinker’s tastes. That’s part of why it’s wise to mix these cocktails individually and leave a little room in the glass on the first pour.
- Choices, choices, choices: Just as with making shrub itself, what you put in your cocktail can vary widely. But a few guidelines can help. I tend to pair mild shrubs, like cucumber–dill, with mild liquors, like rum or vodka. Intensely flavored shrubs, like apple–cranberry or beet, work well with stronger alcohols, like whiskeys. But experiment with various bottles to find combinations that appeal to you.
- You made the effort to create your own mixer, so don’t reach for the cheapest bottle of tequila on the shelf. But you don’t have to break your budget: I like to drink top-shelf liquors neat and wouldn’t dilute an expensive bottle with a mix, homemade or not.
- The same is true of other additives and flavors: if you want to add fruit, citrus juice, or herbs, choose fresh, quality ingredients. But do experiment; you may find the next great cocktail craze right in your kitchen.
Want to play with more variations? Twice as Tasty is teaching these techniques in a Creative Cocktails workshop held in your own kitchen, among friends—and with my personal help. Click here to learn more.
Tried & True
These tools and supplies may help you make the recipes in this post:
- The Raw-Fruit Shrub recipe creates a concentrate, so fizzy water will become a staple in your house if you get hooked on this beverage—alcoholic or nonalcoholic. You can just buy it, but I try to limit my purchase of single-use plastic bottles. Instead, I use this tool to make water bubbly; I still have the original model, which has held up well for years.
- If you get serious about mixology, you’ll quickly realize I’ve skimped on the tools and techniques for these recipes. The New Cocktail Hour closes with basic yet comprehensive how-to chapters.
- For more about the history of shrubs and ways to mix them into beverages, I turn to Warren Bobrow’s slim yet info-packed volume, Bitters and Shrub Syrup Cocktails. My first book on the subject, Michael Dietsch’s Shrubs, gets repetitive in its recipes but has lots of flavor ideas.
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