No, I don't want no shrubs

Hold onto your your beer, because we’re about to get botanical.

For the purposes of this article at least, a ‘shrub’ is not a “small to medium-sized woody plant with persistent stems” but a fruit liqueur that was popular in 17th and 18th century England. But once more,it’s hip to be drinking an ‘acidulated beverage’. What the heck does that mean? Read on.

At The Library bar in the Public Theater, downtown New York, shrubs are selling like hot cakes. So too at The Nightjar, London; One Fine Day, Liverpool; and even bar and restaurant Thyme in the heart of the Cotswolds. Shrubs are a vinegared syrup infused with fruit juice and rinds, herbs and spices. They began reappearing on cocktail menus in bars and restaurants around the world from 2011, but were originally popular in 17th century England.

They have their roots in the practice of preserving fruit in vinegar. In colonial America, the preserves themselves were called shrubs, and once the fruit was strained out, the liquid would be sweetened with sugar or honey and then reduced to make a sweet-and-sour syrup. Under the oppressive heat of the American South, the syrup is mixed with soda to make a refreshing, non-alcoholic drink akin to sour beer or kombucha. The cocktail version is traditionally mixed with rum or brandy, but nowadays pretty much anything goes. Both versions are called shrubs.

Ryan Chetiyawardana (aka cocktail master Mr Lyan) has played a large part in bringing these earthy, sour drinks back to our bars, as a pioneer on the London bar scene. Among the house distillates and atomisations that made his name, shrubs are used as a fresh alternative to the same old sad lemons and limes. Citrus fruits and vinegar both ‘acidulate’ a drink, to give it a sharp tang, and the upside of vinegar is that it does not make your cocktail cloudy. A turmeric and red apple shrub cuts through the crisp gin of The Lyan Club Cocktail, adding just the right touch of sweetness.

Kristin Wingfield-Koefod is the creator of a range of drinks mixers called 18.21. “Shrubs have made a resurgence in the last few years in the craft cocktail world because of their unique flavors and the addition of acidity they bring to cocktails,” she explains. “We currently do an entire line of cocktail mixers including shrubs, tinctures, bitters, rich simple syrups, ginger beer and tonic. Our shrub line up includes Apple Cardamom, Blackberry Peppercorn, Blood Orange+Ginger, Watermelon Mint, White Jasmine+Grapefruit, Whiskey Soaked Cherry and a seasonal, Pumpkin Shrub. Each one is made with a different blend of vinegars.” But for the hardcore among you, there’s the option of making your own vinegar by using fruit juice, sugar, and wild yeasts. All fruit is suitable,especially if it’s blemished or the“wrong” size, because who cares?! If you don’t have an orchard – or, well, shrubs – in your back garden, try asking local cafes and supermarkets if they will give you what’s destined for their bins. Over-ripe fruit is great for making syrup. Shrubs 1, food waste 0. 

There are so many variations of sugar to use, with turbinado being all the rage these days, but ordinary cane sugar works just fine. Red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar add a bit of flavour, but again basic white vinegar does the job. You can use heatto quickly dissolve the fruit sugars in vinegars, or you can use the cold- process method where you cover the fruit with a veritable blanket of sugar and leave in the fridge until a little lake of syrup appears to be drowning your fruit. Next, you add vinegar, get rid of the remaining solid fruit, and chill again for several days.

Our chemistry expert Dr Adam McCudden knows what’s going on to make shrubs so tasty. “Vinegar is basically acetic acid, which is a low pH. Any flavour molecules that happily dissolve at low pH will undergo greater extraction and become more prominent in a shrub compared to the same flavour in a simple sugar syrup. Compounds that are not stable at low pH will react with vinegar to form different flavours.

The shrubs themselves are pretty long-lasting as flavouring when kept refrigerated, given that both the high sugar content and acidity should work as preservatives, and if made using the heat method, any potentially-upsetting yeast compounds will have been killed off.”

The result is a pungent, tart syrup with all the flavours of its ingredients muddled together. After a few weeks, the syrup mellows and becomes a bit more palatable. To spice things up, you can add spices and herbs. Before you add a garnish, however, you might want to know that the name is actually derived from the Arabian verb meaning “to drink”: sharāb. Its roots are in the method of preserving fruits and berries in vinegar to keep them for eating year round, and the leftover vinegar and fruit juice was kept for drinking. Shrubs shimmied out of the Persian desert in the 15th century, as a drink called Sekanjabin that met its match with the medicinal cordials of England. Smugglers in the late 17th century used the fruity flavours to mask the taste of alcohol that had been sunk in barrels off-shore to avoid detection by the taxman. By the dawn of the 18th century, the mixture was found in public houses throughout England. They disappeared from fashion in the 18th century but now the spotlight has shone upon them once more.

As mixed drinks, they offer a botanical smorgasbord. Their newfound popularity is entwined with the trend of ‘nose-to-tail’ eating, or using all parts of whatever you’re eating. Sub in peel for nose and seeds for tail and you have a mixed drink that reduces food waste, since the spices come from seeds, the outer

layer of the fruit isn’t thrown away, and the fruit most often used is over-ripe. Keying into another trend is the use of fermented foods, now touted as healthy. They also embrace the hotter weather caused by global warming, making them a triple threat in today’s battle of the trends.

For the season to be jolly, we recommend mixing your own shrub with apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, raisins, honey, and sherry for a delicious totty that goes right to the end of your fingers and toes. Perfect if you need a little TLC.

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