What is a Shrub? (The Drink, Not The Plant!)
Taylor Sacco delves into the topic of shrubs—what it is, the history, and the many uses.
Have you ever been perusing a menu, and needed to secretly Google an ingredient because you didn’t know what it was, and were too afraid to ask? Me too! In this article, we’re tackling shrubs, so that’s one less thing you’ll need to Google to impress your friends (or that cool individual making drinks on the other side of the bar).
The Shrub has a long and storied history, alongside its close cousin, Switchel. Both are made by combining vinegar and sugar, both saw popularity as prohibition alcohol alternatives, and both have seen a cocktail comeback in recent years.
First, let’s tackle the question, what is a shrub?
To put it plainly, a shrub is a combination of vinegar, sugar, and fruit—typically in a 1:1:1 proportion (though it can get far more complex, if you so choose). You combine all three ingredients, and let it sit for 2 days or more. Then you strain, and you’ve got yourself a shrub, baby.
Before refrigeration became a household luxury, vinegar was used to preserve fruits and vegetables to keep them fresh through the winter. Eventually, this mixture (sweetened with sugar) would become its own beverage. The British navy used shrubs in the 18th century to combat scurvy (which is good to know in case you ever feel a case of scurvy coming on). In America, during prohibition, there was an increase in shrubs being used as thirst-quenching liquor alternatives—drinks that could “cheer, but not inebriate.” In fact, because vinegar promotes salivation, shrubs are particularly hydrating and thirst-quenching, which led to widespread consumption across the United States during our hot summer months.
Around the late 1900’s, after home refrigeration became the norm, and when soft drinks like Coca Cola became widespread, shrubs dropped off in popularity. It wasn’t until craft cocktail culture began reintroducing them, that they came back into vogue. The possibilities for shrub cocktails are virtually endless.
Of course, a shrub will introduce some vinegar flavor to your drink. However, it will also add sugar and fruit, so it’s a great way to add sweetness, flavor, and complexity to a mixed drink with just one ingredient. While the actual creation of a shrub may be labor-intensive, it’s time you’ll save later when the multiple facets of a well-balanced cocktail can be added with a single pour.
Not only are the potential combinations of vinegar, sugar, and fruit dizzying, but the sheer potential of how to incorporate them into cocktail recipes is equally open.
As an example, Brendan Heath, while working at Dear Mom in San Francisco, created The Nostalgia, which he described as a Mother’s Day Boulevardier. (On a side note, Mother’s Day is May 8th this year, so mark your calendar!) Brendan’s recipe calls for Bourbon or Rye—both of which we make at Mad River Distillers—and Campari, but it excludes sweet vermouth in lieu of a lavender shrub that incorporates kumquats, peppercorns, lemongrass and balsamic vinegar. As you can see, opening the door to shrubs can make you rethink your whole cocktail game.
Not a whiskey fan? The potential for rum and shrub cocktails is equally grand. Monica Carbonell of Liquid Culture has created a banana peel shrub, incorporating peanuts and brown sugar as well as vinegar. She then uses her original shrub in an aged rum cocktail called a Banana Boat. (First Run and Maple Cask Rum are crying out for someone to use them in this cocktail, trust me.)
We all start making cocktails somewhere, and the beautiful thing about surrendering to the allure of making incredible drinks at home is how endless of a rabbit hole it becomes. While we may start by haphazardly mixing vodka and orange juice and drinking the results (yes, I am guilty), soon your world of ingredients opens up with the addition of syrups, bitters, Amari, and aperitif’s. They add dimension, depth and complexity to your drinks that you never even dreamed possible. I’ve always said that my favorite thing about cocktails is just how deep you can go. You just never run out of possibilities.
Ready to make your first shrub?
Here's where you can find the shrub and cocktail recipes noted above:
Written by Taylor Sacco and published on February 10, 2022.
Seedlip. (n.d.). Enhance the Flavour of your Cocktails | A History of Cocktail Shrubs. Retrieved April 10, 2022, from https://www.seedlipdrinks.com/en-au/journal/a-history-of-cocktail-shrubs/
C, M. (2021, October 6). Banana Boat - Rum and Banana Peel Shrub Cocktail. Liquid Culture. Retrieved March 30, 2022, from https://www.liqculture.com/banana-boat-rum-and-banana-peel-shrub-cocktail/
Reddicliffe, S., & Buckley, C. (Eds.). (2022). The New York Times Essential Book of Cocktails (Second Edition): Over 400 Classic Drink Recipes With Great Writing from The New York Times (2nd ed.). Cider Mill Press.
UHP Staff. (n.d.). Shrubs and Switchels: A History. The Ultimate History Project. Retrieved April 1, 2022, from https://ultimatehistoryproject.com/shrubs-and-switchels-a-history.html