Having just finished a fine Easter dinner (featuring a UConn holiday ham) at a sibling’s house this past weekend, perhaps a bit full from overindulging in our celebratory repast, we were offered a shot of raspberry shrub as a digestive aid. This interesting concoction was both sweet and sour with strong fruity and slight lavender overtones.

Turns out shrubs are a type of drinking vinegars dating back for centuries. The word shrub was most likely derived from the Arabic word ‘sharab’ which means to drink. Shrubs were created as a way to preserve fruit juices in the days before refrigeration. They were also touted as cures for dozens of ailments but especially for digestive issues. The more bitter or astringent the medicine, the more curative powers it was believed to have.

blackberries

Blackberries have a short storage span but lots of antioxidants. Photo by dmp, UConn

It is believed that shrubs became associated with booze in the 1700’s when alcohol from mainland Europe was being smuggled into England to avoid tariffs. Apparently, hidden barrels of alcohol sometimes became tainted with seawater and shrubs were used to mask the off flavor. Shrubs became popular during the 1700s and 1800s and recipes for rum shrubs and brandy shrubs can be found dating back to these times.

The early English settlers that colonized New England carried over this fruit preservation method from their homeland. There seems to be a number of ways to prepare a shrub but to create this acidulated beverage there are three key ingredients: fruit, sugar and vinegar. Flavorings are added via herbs or spices. Alcohol either used as a shrub ingredient or mixed with the finished product is optional.

blackberries, sugar & vinegar

3 simple ingredients – fruit, sugar and vinegar. Photo by dmp, UConn

Select from any number of fruits when preparing a shrub including raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, rhubarb, peaches, apricots, melons, mangoes and gooseberries. Typically, granulated white sugar is used but some recipes substitute honey for the sugar and others call for turbinado or other fancy brown sugars. Red wine and apple cider vinegars are most often used to make shrubs. More adventurous shrub makers can try recipes with balsamic, coconut or champagne vinegars. Apparently, the combination of fruits, vinegars and spices in only limited by one’s imagination and probably taste buds.

basket of peaches

Basket of peaches. Photo by dmp, UConn

A most simple recipe suggests using 1 part each fruit, sugar and vinegar. Crush or cut up the fruit and stir in sugar. Cover. Allow to draw out the juices for a day or two in the refrigerator. Next strain this mixture so just a sugary syrup remains. Lightly press fruit when straining to obtain as much juice as possible. Add your choice of vinegar, mix well, transfer to a clean bottle and store in the refrigerator. Shake occasionally and after 2 to 3 weeks, taste your creation.

The flavor should be a pleasant mix of tart and sweet. Tangy vinegar and sugary sweetness mellow over time giving the shrub a rich, fruity flavor with just the right touch of both sweet and sour. When pleased with the result, serve your shrub mixed with flat or sparkling water, green tea, in a mixed drink or as a shot straight up.

shrub 2

Cherry, yarrow and spearmint shrub. Photo by dmp, UConn

The mellowing or blending of flavors in your shrub is actually the result of microbial action. Naturally occurring yeasts on the fruit and from the air cause the sugar to turn into alcohol while bacterial organisms transform the alcohol into more vinegar. The whole solution does not turn into vinegar because these microbial actions reach a happy equilibrium as it acidifies.

Other recipes start by heating the fruit and the sugar and some give directions for preparing the fruit using vinegar or alcohol such as rum or brandy. The one I tried, a raspberry lavender shrub had all the ingredients mixed together and set in a dark, cool spot for a two days before refrigerating. Check out a few different recipes to find one appealing to you. Shrubs are said to keep for several months in the refrigerator. I’ll be making my first one this weekend and be better able to judge the veracity of this statement in a few months.

Shrub 3

Raspberry lavender shrub steeping before refrigeration. Photo by dmp, UConn

Another component of shrubs to consider are the flavorings. Depending on the fruit and the vinegar or liquor used, many herbs and spices can be added to complement the base ingredients. Think of cinnamon sticks, cloves, anise star, ginger and cardamom for a spicy touch. Some fruit combine well with lavender, fennel seeds, vanilla beans or citrus peel. Peppercorns or dried chili peppers will definitely add a fiery touch. One can even try adding herbs such as lemon verbena, lemon balm, pineapple sage, basil, bay or tarragon.

Lemon Balm

Lemon balm, Photo by dmp, UConn

Shrubs sound like a fun drink to make with huge amounts of flavorful variations to try. There are many recipes online. Start with a simple one and experiment as you get more confident of the outcome.

Dawn P.