So much of the current craft cocktail boom is about rediscovery. From the resurgence of long forgotten drinks like the Last Word to the quest for evermore obscure and arcane techniques, what’s old is new again.
Shrub syrups — an acidulated beverage of vinegar, fruit, and sugar — are one such historic cocktail component enjoying a new life. Shrub recipes can vary wildly depending on the vinegar, fruit and sugar used. The result is a versatile, sweet and tart syrup that is a refreshing pick me up when combined with carbonated water, alcohol, or both.
Popular in America during the Colonial era, shrubs were favored as a thirst-quencher as well as for their medicinal benefits in treating fevers and other maladies. An additional benefit of shrubs for early Americans was their long shelf lives. The vinegar, which prevents putrefaction, allowed them to be kept at room temperature for long periods without the risk of spoilage.
The practice of combining shrubs with spirits was a natural progression. Easily produced and often on hand, they quickly found their way into punches, or were mixed with rum or brandy. With the advent of refrigeration, however, shrubs fell out of favor, and were lost to history until a new generation of bartenders began experimenting with them in recent years.
To understand how to incorporate shrubs into our cocktail canon, we spoke with Ben Lohnes, who frequently uses them when mixing up drinks as bar manager at the Tides Beach Club in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Paste: How did you discover shrubs?
Ben Lohnes: I have known about shrubs for many years as they were very popular in in the 17th and 18th century. I’ve only recently, within the past three or four years, been implementing them into our cocktail program here at the Tides.
Paste: When would someone use a shrub in a cocktail?
BL: From my experience, shrubs are most known to be used in darks liquors and liquor that has been exposed to barrel aging. Nowadays, mixologists are expanding their usage of shrubs due to their creativity and the varieties of different vinegars available to them.
Paste: What’s the advantage of shrubs over syrups or juices?
BL: I would say that the best reason for using a shrub over a syrup or juice would be that the shelf life is much longer than that of a fresh juice. This is because the base of a shrub is vinegar, which acts as a preservative and the acid kills bacteria. It’s also fun playing with different vinegars until you find the perfect fit for whatever cocktail it’s going in.
Paste: What tips do you have for people looking to experiment with shrubs?
BL: Think outside the box and experiment with different spirits, fruits, vegetables and vinegars. It’s gratifying when you discover an original combination that meets in harmony. Feel free to play around with the amounts of ingredients and/or add components to your liking.
You can buy premade shrubs (check out the handmade offerings from Shrub and Co), but they’re also pretty simple to make at home. It takes patience to make a shrub (the concoction has to sit for several days) but take solace in the fact that you probably have all of the ingredients already in your kitchen.
Blackberry Honey Shrub
1 cup blackberries
½ cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
½ cup honey
¾ cup cider vinegar
½ cup water
Directions: Combine water and vinegar in a saucepan, and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, and add blackberries and honey. Let it cool at room temperature for 24 hours. Next, pack ingredients into a mason jar or jars and refrigerate for 7 days. Shake the jars once or twice daily. On the final day, press the remaining fruit through a cheesecloth and add lemon juice.
Jim Sabataso is a writer, part-time bartender, and full-time cocktail enthusiast living in Vermont. Follow him on Twitter @JimSabataso.