Shrub-a-dub-dub

Thanks for the shrub, says Ella Buchan, who argues these “drinking vinegars” are the perfect soft drink

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A shrub is a delicious dance of a drink. Tartness tangoes with subtle sweetness and sour notes tap-dance on the palate, creating a distraction before the fruit finally reveals itself, with the subtle yet potent flourish of a dancer performing the Paso Doble, from beneath a cloak of vinegar. 

If you’re not yet acquainted with shrubs, you may well be wondering what on earth I’m putting in my drinks. And perhaps pondering just what a garden bush has to do with cocktails, anyway.

This was me, a few years ago. I’d heard shrubs mentioned in cocktail bars – the hip kind where drinks aren’t mixed, but crafted, and where shelves heave under bottles of house-made syrups, barrel-aged cocktails and fruit infusions. And, I’ll admit, I thought “shrubs” was some kind of mixologists’ shorthand for herbaceous garnishes like huge sprigs of rosemary and mint. Then, after hearing it again and again, I finally asked a bartender: just what is a shrub when it’s at home, or in the bar?

The answer – like a syrup but not exactly a syrup; like vinegar but not exactly vinegar – wasn’t hugely illuminating, especially as I’d already sipped a couple of cocktails (including a Collins made with a blackberry shrub, which properly evoked the green spikiness of brambles and the stained lips and fingertips of fruit picking). Then I did a little digging, and eventually had a go at making my own.

Put simply, a shrub is a fruit-based syrup mixed with vinegar. It’s sometimes called a “drinking vinegar”, and whether or not that sounds appetising probably reflects your palate. Personally, I’m always drawn to the tart, the sour, the savoury, which is why shrubs have proved a game-changer when it comes to my not-drinking habits.

I’ve long harboured the suspicion that the sweeter-teethed among us find it easier to swerve alcohol. Fizzy, soft drinks and juices tend, more often than not, to veer on the sugary side. If your tipple of choice is a rum and coke, a gin and tonic or a tequila sunrise, omitting the booze isn’t so painful. For those of us whose teeth cringe at the thought of a saccharine drink, it can be trickier.

Shrubs – just like kombucha – are a revelation in this respect. Bright enough to be refreshing, sour enough to satisfy, and with enough complexity and acidity to be paired with even the spiciest and richest of foods, they’ve become my default alcohol alternative. Their versatility is also appealing. There are as many potential shrub flavours as there are combinations of varieties of fruit, styles of vinegar, and types of sugar.

PHOTO: Junior sous chef Fran in Riverford Field Kitchen garden

Here’s what mixologists have long known: when it comes to cramming fruit flavours into cocktails (or mocktails), nothing else comes close. A shrub is the purest expression of the fruit in syrup form that, when shaken, stirred and swizzled into drinks, adds a natural flavour that reflects the essence of its ingredients.

Mixologist Gem Stadden, who works at The Riverford Field Kitchen in Buckfastleigh, Devon, is a devotee. “Shrubs sit perfectly between the bright sugary cheerfulness of a traditional cordial and the sleek sophistication of an aperitif,” she says. 

“It all lies in the balance of soft fruits and vinegar, where both serve to enhance each other, with a beautiful zing on the tongue that wakes up the tastebuds.”

Shrubs are also one of the best “soft” drinks for food-pairing thanks to their depth, complexity and versatility. Gem works with the chefs at Riverford, which is based on a farm, to create drinks that complement their seasonal, vegetable-focused menus. 

Making shrubs is also a great way to mop up food that might otherwise be wasted. Ripe, and even overripe, fruit makes the juiciest, most flavourful shrubs, and it hardly matters what the ingredients look like; after all, they’re about to be chopped, squished, pummelled and pressed.

“My work with shrubs is also a great way to use any of the fruits that are maybe a bit wonky, a bit less pretty, yet still carry an amazing flavour, which are then infused into a kombucha vinegar, crafted with a complimentary tea blend, and finally topped off with a seasonal foraged herb or two, courtesy of our in-house foraging expert,” says Gem. “It results in a drink that is as unique each time I make it as the vintage of a fine wine.”

None of this has gone unnoticed in the growing world of alcohol-free drinks. Nonsuch Shrubs, for example, creates syrups and sodas in flavours like caramelised pineapple and ginger, blood orange and bitter lemon, and hedgerow berries with rosewater. The results are stunningly sophisticated and complex, and a better match for many foods than (dare I say it?) wine.

As with most things, of course, none of this is new – just rediscovered. Difford’s Guide points out that the word shrub comes from the Arabic sharaba (“to drink”), and that these drinks in various forms have a heritage spanning centuries. 

PHOTO: Riverford Field Kitchen garden

According to Seedlip, which suggests pairing its alcohol-free distillations with shrubs, vinegar was added to gluts of fruit and vegetables to preserve them out of season, while fruit vinegars were the cordials of the Victorian era. A shrub was even prescribed to stave off scurvy in the British Navy in the 18th century. A variation developed in 15th-century England included alcohol, used for medicinal purposes, and shrubs were sipped during prohibition in the US (perhaps when people couldn’t find a speakeasy).

Again, as with many once-popular foods and drinks, refrigeration was the death knell for shrubs. Until now, that is. Thanks to the commitment of mixologists and the increasing number of commercial drinks brands making or advocating for these tart cordials, shrubs are making a comeback.

My kitchen shelves now groan under rows of glass bottles, stoppered, scruffily labelled and filled to various levels with a rainbow of shimmering liquid.

I use fruit gathered in my garden, from apples to rhubarb, that would otherwise either be used in a crumble or left to rot into the ground. Then I wash, chop, squash, toss with sugar and leave to macerate in peace for a day or two.

The result is a bowl filled with sweet, lightly frothy juice, ready to be strained, mixed with vinegar and bottled.

My first attempt was plum and lavender (also plucked from the garden; I was trying to be fancy). It wasn’t bad, though a later plum shrub with cardamom proved more delicious. None of my experiments have been undrinkable, though, and that’s down to the centuries of history behind the method. 

You can make a version using heat, simmering fruit with sugar for a syrup, then straining and combining with vinegar. It’s obviously quicker and involves less faff, though some shrub purists would argue it just isn’t the same as a cold-macerated shrub and carries less of the natural qualities of the fruit. I’m with them; hot-method shrubs can be a little jammy.

I prefer my shrubs stiffly tart, almost to the point of being eye-watering, and capped with just a dash of soda water so those refreshing, intense fruit notes punch right through. It’s enough to drive me not to drink.

PHOTO: Rhubarb and redcurrants from Ella's garden

COLD METHOD SHRUB

You can play around with ratios to find the right balance of sweet and tart, adding more sugar or vinegar as needed. Each element is open to experimentation. 

Caster sugar and cider vinegar should work well with most shrubs, while red wine vinegar brings more richness to the party and brown sugars like Muscovado and Demerara will infuse the drink with toffee notes. 

Throwing in botanicals like herbs, spices and citrus peel along with the fruit can result in more complex flavours, too. 

This basic recipe, which yields roughly one litre depending on the juiciness of the fruit, is a good place to start. 

Ingredients: 500g sugar, 500g fruit, 500g vinegar

Method:

1. Wash and prepare the fruit. Harder fruits like apples and pears can be sliced or grated, berries should be lightly crushed and stone fruits like peaches and plums should be sliced. If using citrus fruit, lightly zest (this can be added to the sugar) before roughly chopping. No need to remove stones, pips, stems etc.

2. Add to a big bowl, toss with sugar, cover and leave in a cool, dark place or in the fridge for 2-3 days, stirring now and again, until it looks really juicy.

3. Strain through a sieve, lightly pressing the fruit to get all the juice out. You can save the fruit to make jam or to use in a dessert (though you might have to fish out any pips, stems, stones etc). Then strain the liquid again through a muslin cloth to get rid of any bits.

4. Add the vinegar, tasting as you go, until you’re happy with the balance of tart and sweet.

5. Use a funnel to pour into sterilised, sealable bottles and store in the fridge for two to three days for the flavours to settle.

PHOTO: Rhubarb from Ella's garden

FLAVOURS TO TRY

Plum & cardamom: 

Use to add a fruit-forward note and depth of flavour to rum cocktails, to add richness to mulled wine or as the base for a mocktail with fresh orange slices, 

Lemon & rosemary: 

A sprig or two of rosemary added to a citrus shrub makes a brightly refreshing shrub.

Rhubarb & ginger: 

Add around inch of fresh ginger, grated, to 500g rhubarb.

Blood orange: 

Use as the base for a punch, adding soda, sliced blood oranges, cranberries and, for an alcoholic version, gin.

PHOTO: Blueberry and apple shrub from Riverford Field Kitchen

BLUEBERRY & APPLE SHRUB

Try this recipe courtesy of Gem Stadden from Riverford Field Kitchen. Perfect poured over ice, topped up with soda and (ideally) sipped in the sunshine.

Ingredients: 500g blueberries, 1tsp peppercorns, 3 apples, thinly sliced, 500ml honey, equal amounts red wine vinegar and caster sugar

Method:

1. Blitz blueberries in a food processor, pour them into a sterilised, sealable jar and pour over just enough red wine vinegar to cover them. (Note how much vinegar you use as you will need the same amount of sugar later.)

2. Crack peppercorns using a mortar and pestle or the flat side of a knife and add to the mixture sparingly. Seal and leave overnight in a cool, dry spot.

3. Meanwhile, bring a litre of water to the boil and stir in the honey until dissolved. Throw apples into another jar and cover with the hot honey syrup. Steep overnight.

4. The next day, strain the blueberry vinegar into a pan through muslin cloth. Bring to the boil and add sugar (if you used 500ml of red wine vinegar, use 500g of sugar). Simmer until dissolved – around a minute – and leave to cool.

5. Strain the apple syrup and the blueberry vinegar separately through muslin and mix the two together to taste.

Cover photo: © Riverford Field Kitchen Garden

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