You would think a garden blog about shrubs would be about the best “woody perennials”, but there is another kind of “shrub” worth talking about…and they are for drinking.
Also known as drinking vinegars, the word “shrub” is a Colonial word for a sweet fruity vinegar. Originally the result of old-fashioned fruit preserving methods, the history of this tangy syrup goes far back in human history and crosses many cultures.
There has been a wonderful revival of this vintage brew with the renewed interest in cocktail culture and an increasing awareness of the ingredients in the beverages we consume.
I have been making this versatile elixir for many years, since I discovered a recipe in an English Herbal my mother gave me. In Pamela Michaels book,’ All Good Thing Around Us; A Cookbook and Guide to Wild Plants and Herbs’, the recipe was simply called fruit vinegar and I primarily used it as a delicious dressing and condiment and as my go-to gift for my most treasured friends. Now I re-brand the same syrup and gift it with drink recipes or pre-mixed into bottled cocktails.
Drinking vinegars are basically an ancient way of preserving the harvest. You can use almost any fruit as well as several variations of the process, but the end result is some form of fruit, sugar and vinegar. This sweet – tart balance is what you are after and the outcome combines the two ends of a flavor spectrum that almost all cultures love in some form or another.
You will find some recipes that add alcohol from the beginning, producing an acidic alcoholic syrup as the fruit continues to infuse and ferment. I think the versions that use only vinegar are more versatile, because they are great mixers and can always be added to alcohol to produce an array of grown-up drinks, while keeping your shrub usable for kids and salads. (– But more about using alcohol in a minute-)
This is what the English author, Pamela Michael, has to say;. ”Fruit vinegars were once an important item of the still room, they were taken as refreshing drinks during fever and as unfailing thirst quenchers. Two teaspoons diluted in a tumbler of water make a refreshing drink….on a hot day the same drink, with a few ice cubes, is wonderfully bracing and thirst-quenching and children love it.” I would also add that using carbonated water ups the fun factor significantly.
You can find many variations for creating this invigorating concoction. You don’t really need a recipe, it is more about the proportions of ingredients and the characteristics of your fruit. The main variations are whether and when to use heat and whether you add the sugar at the beginning to draw the juice from the fruit, or at the end to control the sweetness of the result. Originally you were probably making the vinegar as part of the process, but now it is more common to add pre-made vinegar to your fruit. This saves time and streamlines the process.
I have experimented with many variations, but the most fool-proof method is the one I learned from Michaels book. So here is a simplified version;
Basic Shrub Recipe; Fruit Vinegar-Syrup. 1 lb fruit, 2 cups vinegar (wine or apple vinegar are best), 2 cups sugar. Wash fruit and place in clean glass or ceramic jar (no metal), pour vinegar over the fruit and cover the jar with a cloth or wax paper. Soak for 3 days to 3 months. When you’re ready, strain out the fruit (strainer first, then coffee filter for more clarity, if desired). Heat the resulting liquid with equal amounts of sugar (ex. 1 cup liquid plus 1 cup sugar). Bottle into clean jars when the sugar has dissolved.
This produces a beautiful, fruit-tart syrup. You can adjust the result with more vinegar or sugar, as desired. This method benefits from using over-ripe (or “ugly”) fruit, since you will discard it afterwards and the mature, ripened flavors create a more interesting result. Try any soft fruit; berries, plums, apricots and very ripe pears are my favorites. It is also delicious with light herbal or spice notes such as cloves or thyme. Add those near the end to not over-power the fruit.
To use Shrubs and Drinking-Vinegars; Follow Michaels advice and add a shot to water for a refreshing drink (hot, cold or sparkling). For adults; add a shot to your favorite spirit over ice. A good guideline is; 2 oz booze, 1 oz shrub and top with optional club soda. Shrubs are also great to add to any drink or dish that needs a little “brightening”. A shrub is a flavorful acid contributor that can be used any time you would add a dash of vinegar or a squeeze of lemon or lime.
If you like the idea of using alcohol for preservation ….then, the recipe can be basically the same, subbing in your favorite spirit for the vinegar. But…if you’re going to do that, consider making a pretty version, where you can enjoy the spirit-infused fruit as well as the delicious boozy syrup after your project is done.
This type of booze-preserved fruit is called a rumtopf (or rum pot) or rumkrukke (Danish)in northern Europe. It is traditionally made by preserving multiple layers of fruit through-out the season. As each type of fruit ripens in the garden, they are added to sugar and spirits to create a layered garden-in-a-jar that is traditionally enjoyed for the holidays. In this version, it’s important to add the sugar to the fruit from the beginning, so it is edible at the end. It certainly doesn’t have to be made with rum and is equally delicious with vodka or bourbon. You don’t use vinegar in a true rumtopf.
So get started now and enjoy the fruits of your labors in a post-harvest party or be ready for the festivities this fall and winter. The result keeps for months in a cool dark location. So go ahead, make a drinkable shrub and then go out to the garden and dance around the living woody kind, in celebration of the gifts of the garden and this invigorating brew that has been enjoyed for centuries.