A few years back, food sleuths and cocktail enthusiasts started to experiment with the shrub, a colonial-era fruit preparation that’s making a comeback. The historical term is slippery, referring to any number of fruit-based drinks, but in general, the shrub was a mixture of whole fruit or fruit juice and vinegar or spirits.
We forgot about the potential of vinegars when refrigerators were invented. The revival of a host of fermented foods has helped us rediscover what our ancestors took for granted: Vinegar is a convenient vehicle for preserving fruit, especially if you have a bowl (or an orchard) full of fast-fading stone fruits or an abundance of berries.
Vinegar was also regarded as a remedy. The shrub descended from the medicinal English cordials of the 15th century, a tableau of concoctions created to treat a range of ailments, such as stomach upset, and to aid in overall health and “revival.” Spices, herbs, dried fruit and fruit peels (and sometimes even powdered pearls or gold leaf) were steeped in alcohol or vinegar and doled out medicinally. Later, they became social drinks.
The two uses—preservation and medicine—resulted in the colonial preparations. Shrubs of this era were added to mask the flavor of seawater in tainted booze (barrels were sunk offshore to avoid taxation) and as an ingredient in punch. Vinegar’s natural fizzing quality made the shrub a popular, tart drink —a precursor to the modern soda.
Today, a shrub usually means a “sour tonic beverage,” as Sandor Katz puts it, in which vinegar-based fruit syrup is diluted with plain or carbonated water. The syrup, known itself as a shrub or simply as drinking vinegar, is a mixture of equal parts chopped fruit, vinegar, and sugar. It keeps indefinitely in the refrigerator (though its zing may fade), making it an easy go-to for a summer refresher or cocktail ingredient.
You can buy prepared drinking vinegars today. Sometimes we pick up a bottle made by a favorite local barista. But making them is simple and economical. We used this guide to make a batch using Washington-grown Sweetheart cherries. You can also use other stone fruits cut into small pieces. For berries with drupelets, such as raspberries or blackberries, mash the fruit lightly with a fork before steeping.
In a sterilized jar, we poured two cups of heated apple cider vinegar over two cups of quartered and pitted cherries. Then we left it in the pantry for three days. We strained the vinegar into a saucepan, added a cup and a half of sugar to the mixture, brought it to a boil and stirred to dissolve the sugar. We ended up with more than a pint of syrup the color of a red beet.
It’s a pretty addition that adds a tangy complexity to cocktails, like this bourbon-based summer drink, based on a recipe from The American Cocktail. Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with ice. Add two ounces of bourbon and an ounce of drinking vinegar and shake for 15 seconds. Strain into a chilled bourbon glass over one or two ice cubes, add a dash of bitters (we used wild sage), and top with two ounces of white wine.
For a non-alcoholic shrub, chill a pint glass and fill it a quarter of the way with ice. Pour in two ounces of your preferred shrub and the juice of half a lemon. Fill the rest of the glass with carbonated or plain water. Stir and garnish with a sprig of mint or a twist of lemon peel.
Until next time,
The Mastro Team
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