December 21

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Sip on a Shrub

By Anne Rothfeld

A botanical illustration of a grape vine.

The Vine, 1737
NLM #C03109

Looking for a festive drink with historical origins? Prepare a pitcher of shrub to serve when guests arrive. A shrub is a thickened fruit syrup mixed with brandy or vinegar and can be made tarter or sweeter, depending on taste. Don’t be turned off by the sharp flavor, which easily cuts through the syrup—harmony on your taste buds.

From the Arabic word sharab (syrup) and the Hindi word sharbat, this aromatic syrup comes from ancient Turkey and Persia. Incredibly popular with colonial Americans, cooks used vinegar or brandy as a basic preservative, and every family had its own shrub recipe. During the nineteenth-century American Temperance movement, shrubs were served as refreshing non-alcoholic drinks. In the late twentieth-century, the American craft food and drink movement rediscovered shrubs for their flavoring in tonics, punches, and cocktails.

From The complete family-piece: and, country gentleman, and farmer’s best guide, 1736

“Shrub.

Take 2 Quarts of Brandy, and put it in a large Bottle, and put into it the Juice of 5 Lemons, the Peels of 2, half a Nutmeg; stop it up, and let it stand three Days, and add to it three Pints of white Wine, a Pound and half of Sugar; mix it, and strain it twice thro’ a Flannel, and bottle it up; ‘tis a pretty Wine and a Cordial.”

From The ladies best companion: or, A Golden Treasure for the Fair Sex, 1775

“To Make a Good Shrub.

Mix the juice of five lemons, and the peels of two, with two quarts of brandy, and put to it a nutmeg grated down, then put the whole into a large stone bottle; stop it up and let it stand three days, then put to it three pints of white wine, with a pound and a half of sugar, and strain the whole through a thin flannel cloth, when it must be bottle up, and in a week afterwards it will be ready to use.”

If you’re intrigued, here is a basic recipe for the twenty-first century cook (adapted from culinate.com),

Gently mash three to four cups of your favorite seasonal fruit with two to two-and-a-half cups of sugar. Put the fruit into a jar, cover with lid or plastic wrap, and place in a cool, dark spot for five hours to twenty-four hours. After twenty-four hours, combine the fruit and sugar mixture with two cups of vinegar, and one to two tablespoons of aromatic herbs or spices. Stir, recover, and place in cool, dark spot for about one week, allowing the flavor to brighten. After a week, taste your shrub to see if the flavor is acceptable. If so, strain the fruit mixture by pressing it through cheesecloth or fine-mesh sieve, releasing the liquid, about four cups. Pour the shrub into a clean jar to refrigerate for another week, allowing the vinegar to mellow. The shrub can be stored in the refrigerator for up to six months. Start with some suggested holiday flavors like cranberries and orange zest with red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar with cloves and cinnamon. For a lighter option try citrus and white wine vinegar with rosemary.

Experiment with the flavors because shrubs are forgiving. Try rice or balsamic vinegar. Throw in your favorite herbs (lemon verbena, bay leaves, coriander seed, tarragon, basil) and citrus zest. Add more sugar to make it sweeter; add more vinegar to make it tarter.

Shrubs can be used in a myriad of ways. For a non-alcoholic version, mix the shrub with soda water, seltzer, or ginger ale. To cut the sweetness, add a dash or two of bitters. Garnish with fruit and herbs like basil or mint. As an elegant alcoholic beverage, mix your shrub with white wine, champagne, cava, or Prosecco. Add a splash of shrub to a gin/vodka and tonic, or a gimlet.

This holiday season be like Martha Washington and serve a pitcher (or two) of shrub.

Anne Rothfeld is a librarian and historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.