There are shrubs for landscaping, and shrubs for drinking. The latter is an acidulated beverage: made with an acid such as vinegar, lemon or lime juice along with fruit juice, sugar and optional ingredients including herbs, spices and alcohol.
The word is a transposition from the Arabic shurb, a cool drink.
In the U.K. today, shrubs are popular fruity vinegar tonics. But they have not yet achieved a level of awareness in the U.S., even when called “drinking vinegar,” a modern term for the syrup that can be used to make cocktails and cocktails.
Perhaps ten years ago, we were in the Japanese pavilion at a restaurant industry trade show and first encountered “drinking vinegar.” It was an exquisite shot for an after dinner drink: sweet and tart, complex, exciting.
We treasured the bottles we picked up at the show, bringing them to dinners with connoisseur friends, where they were greatly appreciated. Then they were gone, and we moved on. We couldn’t find it for sale, and didn’t realize how easy it was to make it at home.
But drinking vinegar moved on too, as vinegar-based shrub drinks began to be revived around 2011—on a limited basis at trendy bars and restaurants in the U.S., Canada and London.
The acidity of a shrub makes it a fine digestif* or used as an alternative to bitters in cocktails.
TYPES OF SHRUBS
There two different types of shrubs, both acidulated mixed drinks:
The original shrub is a fruit liqueur mixed with rum or brandy, sugar and the juice or rinds of a citrus fruit. It evolved to syrup made of vinegar, sugar and fruit that was popular in England in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The second type of shrub, made on the other side of the pond, was a Colonial-era cocktail or soft drink made by mixing spirits with a vinegared syrup and water or carbonated† water.
Shrub can also refer to drinking vinegar, the vinegar-based syrup used to make the cocktail. The vinegar is often infused with fruit (or made with fruit juice), herbs and spices for use in mixed drinks or as a digestif†; and can serve as a sophisticated soft drink.
THE MODERN SHRUB: DRINKING VINEGAR
Shrubs date to the 17th century (see the history of shrubs below). Fresh fruits were steeped in vinegar and sugar, and infused anywhere from overnight up to several days. The fruit solids were then strained out to create a sweet-and-tart concentrate that was mixed with spirits, water or sparkling water.
Beyond mixology, today’s cooks also add “drinking vinegar” to sauces and salad dressings. We’ve drizzled them on lemon sorbet and rice pudding.
MAKE YOUR OWN SHRUBS
You can buy artisan shrub syrups at specialty foods stores, but they tend to be pricey, like any top-quality drink mixer. You can find bottled shrub syrup in flavors like Apple, Ginger and Strawberry as well as compound flavors such as Apple Caraway, Blood Orange Cardamom, Blood Orange Ginger, Meyer Lemon Lavender, Smoked Spiced Pear, Watermelon Habanero (these compound flavors from Kansas City Canning Co.).
But it costs very little to make your own.
Some people use the ratio of one part fruit, one part sugar and one part vinegar for shrub syrup; but these proportions should vary according to the sweetness of the fruit. If the fruit is particularly sweet, you could cut back on the sugar and increase the fruit ratio.
Think seasonally: berries and stone fruits in the summer; apples, pears and quince in the fall; blood oranges and grapefruits in the winter; strawberries, blackberries and pineapple in the spring.
While apple cider vinegar is traditional, go beyond it to champagne vinegar, sherry vinegar and flavored vinegar (see the different types of vinegar and how to pair vinegars and foods).
TO MAKE A SHRUB, combine 1 pound chopped fruit, 2 cups sugar and 2 cups apple cider or other vinegar.
Use the instructions below. For an apple shrub, we cut back on the sugar.
RECIPE: APPLE CIDER SHRUB
Prep time is 5 minutes plus 3-5 days infusing time.
Ingredients For 3/4 Quart
1-1/2 cups of apple cider vinegar (the best vinegar makes a difference)
2/3 cup granulated sugar
Optional: 1-2 sprigs of rosemary or thyme
 A strawberry shrub (photo courtesy Quinciple).  We’re particularly fond of pineapple shrub (photo courtesy Del Monte).  In the summer, use stone fruits for your shrubs (photo courtesy Frog Hollow Farms).  Beyond apple cider vinegar, consider vinegars flavored with fruit, herbs and spices like these from Boyajian.  A bottle of watermelon-habanero shrub from Kansas City Canning Co. (photo © Laura Noll Photography).
1. DICE the apples into very small pieces and place in a quart-size mason jar. Add the vinegar and sugar, and the herb sprigs. If there’s room at the top of the jar, add a few more splashes of vinegar.
2. CAP the jar tightly and shake it a few times to blend in the sugar. Place the jar in the fridge for 3-5 days, shaking once or twice.
3. TASTE the shrub after three days. If you like the intensity of flavor, strain out the fruit, first pressing the fruit with the back of the spoon to get all of the juice. Then, store the shrub in an airtight container. Otherwise, let it infuse for two more days.
4. SERVE: Pour the shrub over ice and mix with sparkling water or make a cocktail. Or try it as a shot: We did, and really liked it.
*A digestif is an alcoholic beverage served after a meal, in theory to aid digestion. Digestifs are usually taken straight, and include brandy, distilled spirits, eaux de vie (fruit brandy, Schnapps), fortified wine (madeira, port, sweet vermouth), grappa and liqueur. Here’s the difference between apéritif and digestif.
†Carbonated water was first created in 1767 by British chemist Joseph Priestley, but was not manufactured commercially until J. J. Schweppe did so in 1783.
THE HISTORY OF THE SHRUB