Sip, don’t clip, this shrub

no, not a flowering shrub

Let’s talk about shrubs, shall we? No, not the woody-stemmed, smaller-than-a-tree, bushy plant kind of shrubs.

For our purposes, we’re talking this week about a shrub you can drink. 

Evolved from the Arabic word sharab, or schurb, which just means “drink,” a shrub is an acidulated* concoction of fruit and (sometimes) sugar, steeped in vinegar.

Shrub-as-beverage dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries in England, and later in the American colonies in the New World.  A shrub was a cocktail (or soft drink) made from a sweet, vinegared syrup, mixed with spirits, water, or soda-water.

Shrub-vinegar-drinkPrior to the invention of refrigeration, a sweetened, vinegar-based shrub syrup was a means of preserving berries and fruits for use in the off-season. That shrub syrup is also known as drinking vinegar.

Drinking vinegar is often infused with fruit juice, herbs and spices for use in mixed drinks. The higher concentration of flavor and sugar allows the shrub to be stored for later use, like a modern-day drink mixer.

The most basic, simple recipes for shrubs call for vinegar poured over fruit (usually berries), and left to infuse anywhere from overnight up to several days. Afterwards, the fruit gets strained out, and the remaining liquid mixed with sugar or honey, and reduced to make a syrup.

A basic shrub recipe calls for these three ingredients:

  • Fruit (or berries, herbs, even vegetables)
  • Sugar (if you want)
  • Vinegar (pref. white balsamic, for a prettier drink color)

Make the shrub using a ratio of 2 parts vinegar to 1 part fruit. If using sugar in your shrub, gently mash the fruit and sprinkle with enough sugar to cover, allowing it to macerate** for (at least) a few hours, before mixing with the vinegar.

Hot or cold? Shrub is a “choose your own adventure” recipe. You can boil the fruit-optional sugar-vinegar mixture, yielding a more concentrated syrup that cooks up quickly. Or you can take the no-cooking cold shrub route: let the sugared fruit sit in the refrigerator for up to several days, covered, before adding vinegar and straining out the fruit. The cold shrub method yields a stronger flavor, but takes longer. Shake or stir the shrub before using.

Stir it up. The sweet-and-sour “drinking vinegar” shrub syrup could be mixed with either water or bubbly soda water and served as a soft drink, or it could be used as a mixer, with spirits, in alcoholic cocktails. One or two Tbsp of shrub will flavor one 6 – 8 oz drink.

Although shrubs fell out of popular use with the widespread use of in-home refrigeration, the resurgence in cocktail culture of the past ten years has ushered in a new interest in shrub drinks. The acidity of the shrub makes a nice alternative choice to bitters in cocktails; and unlike citrus-based drinks, vinegar-based cocktails stay clear (not cloudy) when shaken.


Photo credits: Rhododendron shrubs in Sheringham Park, Chris J. Wood
Pomegranate-Quince Balsamic drink, by AllSpicer Anna vanM.

*(For extra credit, remember that acidulated means a liquid is made more acidic with the addition of vinegar, wine, or fruit juice).
**(When you stew fruit in sugar, it draws out the juices and that is called maceration.)