If you’re a cocktail connoisseur, you may have noticed a trend developing among your mixologist friends. The food and beverage industry has been steadily returning to the use of locally produced ingredients and preparing everything in-house. Of course, eating locally and seasonally was once the only option, but it’s an art (and necessity) that fell out of fashion in the era of refrigerators, canned goods, and commercial agriculture.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution and the advent or refrigeration, preserving fresh fruits and vegetables was an important part of life. Preserving summer fruits meant that one could enjoy something sweet even when nothing was growing, and making sure there was enough meat stored to last through the winter was essential to survival. As humans began spending more and more time exploring the ocean, finding a way to transport and store vitamin-rich foods that prevented scurvy and malnutrition was another big asset. But we can’t pretend that these techniques are recent developments. Preserving and fermenting foods is an ancient practice, found in cultures the world over.
But what about drinking vinegar? It may seem strange, but drinking vinegar has been common for centuries the world over, whether it’s the oft-cited Posca, common in ancient Rome and Greece, or the legends that in feudal Japan warriors carried vinegar water with them to fight off fatigue, people have been drinking vinegar for millennia. It’s possible that in ancient times it was used as a way to treat impure drinking water, or else to help ease the effects of drinking unsafe water and eating spoiled food – vinegar can help soothe mild stomach upsets.
In the 18th century drinking vinegars, shrubs, and switchels were the absolute rage in colonial America. They were basically the first energy drink – sugar provides calories, water keeps people hydrated, and vinegar stimulates salivation which helps quench thirst and aids in digestion. During the Temperance movement of the 19th century, shrubs were an acceptable alternative to sinful spirits, and in fact it became quite the fashion to find biblical and historical references for shrubs and drinking vinegars, which further legitimized the refreshing beverage. There was also a firmly held belief that ice water was a “…very grim and deleterious beverage, every glass of which should be labeled with a skull and crossbones”. Shrubs were a delicious alternative that could stave off the extreme heat and keep energy levels up.
What I’ve found is that shrubs, although created by global interactions, are part of a uniquely North American heritage. To that end, they’ve been included in Slow Food Movement USA’s Ark Of Taste, a “living catalogue of delicious and distinctive foods facing extinction.” The most traditional ingredients for shrubs and switchels – apple cider vinegar and molasses – are North American products, easily available to people who lived and worked on a small farmstead in the Northeast or on a large plantation in the South.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take a step back and answer the simple question: What is a shrub?
A shrub is, in this context, a beverage (not a small plant). To add further confusion, the word refers to two different beverages: a shrub can mean either a drink composed of fruit, sugar and vinegar diluted with water (this was its most common meaning in North America), or it can be a drink that includes these same ingredients but with the important addition of alcohol, usually rum or brandy. This second definition is more common in the Caribbean and throughout the British colonies. I’ll be talking mostly about non-alcoholic shrubs, but if you want to see the beautiful effects a homemade shrub can have on a cocktail, pop out to your local craft cocktail bar or better yet, start shrubbing at home and incorporate shrubs into your home bar routine.
I’ve been throwing another word around: switchel. Sometimes known as Haymaker’s Punch, a switchel skips over the fermentation stage of shrub making and simply combines vinegar, water, and a sweetener like molasses. The pet name “Haymaker’s Punch” is due to the fact that this drink was favored by farm workers during hay harvest and baling season, arduous work that takes place in the heat of summer.
I can’t speak much to the etymology of the word switchel, but shrub has a well documented linguistic history, coming originally from the Arabic “sharāb”, meaning “to drink”; it also forms the base of familiar words like sherbet and syrup. Sherbets arrived from Turkey and Persia, and have been called the world’s first soft drink. Fruit (usually lemon) was preserved in sugar and spices and made into a thick syrup, which was then poured on cold marble or otherwise hardened and broken up to create tablets that traveled well and could be dissolved in water or any other liquid to create a sweet drink. Like shrubs, they were a delicious non-alcoholic option for those who preferred to abstain from alcohol, but in the Western world they were often and easily mixed into alcoholic drinks, like brandy, rum, and beer.
Shrubs developed from the technique of preserving fruit in vinegar, a practice common in England, as well as from medicinal cordials. It was common practice to pour vinegar (instead of the more traditional citrus juice) over fresh fruit to steep, then save the liquid and add a sweetener before reducing it down to a syrup. This treatment of using preserved fruits and plants to flavor vinegar was also used on medicinal herbs, but these cordials were left unsweetened. In fact, people would be very suspect of a medicinal tonic that did not taste bitter – if it tastes horrible it must be good for you!
How did this wholesome beverage get alcoholized? There’s an apocryphal story that British traders, unwilling to pay import taxes on their rum, sank their barrels in a British harbor. Once retrieved, they found that the casks had been tainted with seawater. The only way to make the rum palatable again was to douse it with vinegar – shrubs were likely already kept onboard to prevent scurvy and help purify water – and thus the alcoholic shrub drink was born. An alcoholic shrub is usually made with rum or brandy, and can still be found served in coastal British bars today, where a band called the Rum & Shrub Shantymen can also be found performing traditional sea shanties. It’s worth noting that rum was a relatively new product at this time, and although it exploded in global popularity it’s likely that early versions were not all delicious or consistent. Adding some shrub would have helped mask any irregularities in this favored and ubiquitous liquor.
Switchels appeared in the Caribbean sometime in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, a refreshing drink made of vinegar, ginger, molasses and water. It became a staple for seafarers, with Benjamin Morrill (a sailor in the mid 19th century) recommending in a letter to the Secretary of the US Navy that “…switchel, or molasses and water, with a little vinegar in it should be served out to [sailors] once or twice a day, while at sea.” He sustained that adding molasses and vinegar would at least help dilute or mask the taste of the murky drinking water that was usually all they had on board. In Colonial North America, switchels were so refreshing and delicious that people often drank too much, causing bloating and indigestion. For this reason, switchels were usually made with ginger, which would prevent stomach upsets and allow the drinker to drink until they were satisfied.
But enough history. How are shrubs and switchels made?
First, a note on sanitation. Like pickles, shrubs should be put in freshly cleaned and sanitized food-safe containers. I happen to prefer glass jars and bottles. These can be sanitized by dropping them into boiling water for 15 minutes. Similarly, always rinse fruits and herbs thoroughly before putting them to use, and be sure to use non-reactive containers for fermenting the fruit in sugar or vinegar.
Although there are nearly an infinite number of variations on the classic shrub and refreshing switchel, the main ingredients remain the same:
Fruit. This is the perfect time to use overripe fruit, which will be sweeter but may no longer aesthetically pleasing. Shrubs and switchels began as citric drinks, using lemons and limes, but really any fruit will do.
Sugar. Molasses is the old school option, but it’s also the messiest and most flavorful one – it can easily overpower delicate fruit flavors. Honey, maple syrup, or any variety of sugar are all great options.
Vinegar. Apple Cider Vinegar is what people in 19th century North America used, and is still the favored choice, but don’t feel limited by tradition. Vinegar has such a wealth of variations that there are even vinegar sommeliers. Choose the vinegar that pairs best the other ingredients going into the shrub.
Now that we’ve got our ingredients down, let’s focus on technique. The idea is to extract a fruit’s natural sugars and juices, and mix with both sugar and vinegar to create a balanced but tart syrup. This can be achieved in one of two ways, starting with diced fruit and adding either sugar or vinegar first.
If soaking the fruit in vinegar:
1. Submerge the fruit in vinegar of choice. Using a 1:1 fruit-to-vinegar ratio works well, but there’s no need to be super precise. Just make sure the fruit is thoroughly covered. Be sure to use a non-reactive container.
2. Leave in the fridge or on the counter for a few days.
3. After several days or a week, strain off the liquid, removing the fruit.
4. Put the liquid in a pot, and add sugar (or molasses or honey).
5. Place on low heat until the sugar is completely dissolved.
6. Place in sanitized jars and voila! It’s a shrub.
Let the shrub rest for at least a week before trying so that the flavors have a chance to mingle.
When using sugar to extract the fruit juices, the recipe is only slightly different:
1. Place the cut up fruit in a bowl or container and cover with sugar. Again, using a 1:1 fruit-to-sugar ratio is a great place to start, but eyeballing it to make sure the fruit is covered in sugar is fine.
2. Let sit for up to a week in the fridge.
3. Strain out the liquid and add to it the vinegar of choice. Again, a 1:1 ratio of syrup to vinegar will work well, but modulating the amount of vinegar added allows for control over how tart or sweet the shrub ends up being.
4. Place mixture into a sanitized container and leave in the fridge for at least a week. At first, the vinegar will be very present and for some, overpowering. As the mixture rests (try shaking it every couple days or so) the flavors will meld and become much more cohesive.
These will last in the fridge up to 6 months, but if ever there’s a sudden change in color, cloudiness, or new growth in the jar, discard immediately.
How to make a switchel? Simple! Switchels are instant shrubs; simply combine sweetener (molasses, simple syrup, honey) with vinegar to create a syrup, and dilute in sparkling water (or again, rum). An easy way to spruce it up is to make a simple syrup flavored with fruits, herbs or spices.
And here’s a bonus recipe: any of these drinks can be reduced down to a gastrique, a heavy, syrupy sauce that could be the perfect accent to any number of meals.
So what’s stopping you? Shrubs are easy to make and delicious to have in the fridge – plus, they’re good for you! If you’re really nervous, try asking your local bartender for advice. They’ll be sure to have all kinds of tips and tricks for great shrubs up their sleeve, and will likely prepare a delicious beverage for you to help drive the lesson home.