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Mixed drinks, drinking vinegar and shrubs: old drinks for a new era

Updated on June 6, 2013

In the food world, the word “shrub” doesn’t refer to an azalea bush. Instead, it refers to a mixed drink generally made of drinking vinegar, seltzer, and spirits. Popular several centuries ago, this tart drink is making a comeback.

A shrubbery from time_anchor on Flickr
A shrubbery from time_anchor on Flickr

We want… a shrubbery

If a foodie or cocktail enthusiasts refers to a shrub, they are talking about one of two drinks. The first is a rum drink mixed with sugar and citrus rinds. This drink was popular in England during the 17th and 18th centuries. It was a punch-like drink that lost its popularity over time.

The other type of shrub is the vinegar-based drink that is seeing a resurgence of popularity in the modern era. During the colonial era in America, people created shrubs by mixing vinegars with spirits, seltzer water, or plain water. Many times these vinegars were drinking vinegars, sweetened syrups made from herbs, spices, and vinegar infused with fruit juices. These drinking vinegars would be used to add an acidic tang to drinks.

Monty Python gives their take on shrubs

Why the word "shrub"?

The word “shrub” has nothing to with the word as it’s generally used in English. Instead, it’s derived from an Arabic word, sharāb. This word means “to drink,” and it first entered the English language as the word “shurb.” The sounds in the word became jumbled through a linguistic process known as metathesis, and it evolved into the word we know today.

Shrubs galore from slsch1 on Flickr
Shrubs galore from slsch1 on Flickr

From medicine to booze

Many popular drinks first started as medicines, and shrubs are no exception. Like Coca-Cola, which was formulated by John Pemberton to be a medicinal coca wine, shrubs initially were given to patients as medicinal cordials. Medicinal cordials are blends of herbs and alcohol.

When mainland Europe started to raise import taxes, smugglers began to “lose cargo” by dropping barrels of imported alcohol into the ocean so that they could lessen the taxation of the spirits. When all duties were paid, the booze smugglers would retrieve the barrels, which at this point had been tainted by seawater.

As the alcohol was no longer delicious on its own, smugglers added fruits to make the smuggled alcohol more palatable, essentially creating a punch. Over time, this concoction became popular on its own right.

Punch or shrub?

Punches, as a mixed drink, are fruit and alcohol. The first iterations of shrubs were mostly fruit-flavored rum and brandy. Before the vinegar-flavored version of the shrub came along, the difference between a shrub and punch involved the concentration of flavor.

Punches tend to be more diluted. They have to be served immediately upon mixing. In contrast, shrubs have a high sugar content and a burst of concentrated flavor. They had a long shelf life and could be stored alongside other spirits.

Oddly enough, punches were often flavored with shrubs. Shrubs could be used like a pre-made drink mixer, adding a tartness to mixed drinks. During Christmastime, shrubs would be mixed into the Christmas punch along with lemon, honey, raisins, and other spirits.

Shrub syrups by aida mollenkamp on Flickr
Shrub syrups by aida mollenkamp on Flickr

The late 1800s to today

Shrubs were sold widely across England in the 17th and 18th centuries, but soon after, their popularity waned. By the late 1800s, the shrub was no longer in vogue, and it was rarely ordered in public houses.

Before the shrub could die off completely, the drink became popular overseas. During colonial America, people started preserving fruits with vinegar rather than citrus juice. These preserves began to be known as shrubs. People started to infuse fruit--oftentimes berries--in the vinegar, boiling the mixture down into a sour-sweet syrup that they would mix into seltzer water and the occasional boozy drink. Shrubs were not necessarily alcoholic, so even kids could enjoy the tart beverage.

Although shrubs once again waned in popularity due to advances in home refrigeration, they were unearthed by drink enthusiasts in the 21st century. With the advent of drink culture, mixologists were eager to try something both new and historically popular. Bars in America, Canada, and London began to serve shrubs to modern-day booze-hounds, and although shrubs have lost their faddish appeal from 2011 and 2012, they still hold a measure of popularity today.

Colonial shrub from holytoastr on Flickr
Colonial shrub from holytoastr on Flickr

So why drink vinegar?

People drink vinegar for many reasons, two of which are that it’s healthy and the acetic taste is bracing. Acid flavors in drinks add a zip that wakes up the taste buds and lets the rest of the ingredients shine. For today’s drink enthusiast, the acidic shrub is an excellent apéritif. It’s dry and tart, and it stimulates the appetite before a meal.

Another benefit of mixing shrubs into drinks is its light coloration. Although bitters are similarly tart, they tend to be cloudy when stirred or shaken. Shrubs don’t cloud over, acting as clear mixers into drinks.

Make your own shrub at home

Given the homegrown nature of shrubs, it’s unsurprising that they’re easy to make at home. The key ingredients are sweet vinegar--a fruity balsamic or apple cider vinegar work well--sugar, and some sort of plant. Berries are a traditional ingredient.

Here are some recipes to get you started:

Shrubs from Marisa | Food in Jars on Flickr
Shrubs from Marisa | Food in Jars on Flickr

Have you ever had a shrub?

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