Here in Southern California, we’re in the midst of an early summer heat wave, but instead of searching for the cool shade of a tree, I’ve been reaching for the cool treat of a shrub. Shrubs, also known as drinking vinegars, are refreshing beverages made from sweetened fruit and vinegar mixed with still or sparkling water. Used since the 15th century and popular in colonial America as a way to preserve summer fruits, the shrub is currently enjoying a revival.
I first learned about shrubs on a visit to Colonial Williamsburg several years ago and bought a bottle of pre-made shrub syrup from the Williamsburg Marketplace to try at home. I instantly fell for this sweet/tart thirst quencher, but why buy the syrup when you can easily make your own? The recipe is simple, requiring only three ingredients and a bit of pre-planning. Some people recommend cooking the mixture to speed up the process, but I prefer the cold method. It can take a few days, but involves only minutes of hands-on time, and the resulting syrup has greater depth and nuance.
While fresh summer fruits are now becoming available, frozen fruit works just as well when making shrub syrup. In fact, unless you grow your own fruit, pick it yourself, or obtain it from a farmer’s market, I suggest using frozen fruit (preferably organic) to make the syrup, since it is flash frozen a short time after it’s been picked and is actually fresher and more flavorful than most “fresh” fruit. Plus, it’s convenient, having been pre-washed and prepared.
In anticipation of the upcoming 4th of July holiday, I’ve made patriotic red raspberry and wild blueberry shrub syrups. After bottling, it’s best to leave the syrup in the fridge for at least a week or more to cure, so if you get started now, your shrub(s) will be just right to serve at that Independence Day picnic or barbecue. The fruit flavors intensify the longer the mixture sits, and the acid from the vinegar will dissolve any residual sugar over the course of a few days.
Once your syrup has matured a bit, it will be ripe to drink. You can mix it with water to taste, but a good ratio is 2 Tbsp. of syrup for every 8 oz. of water. As mentioned above, you can use still or sparkling water, but get inventive. Use the syrup in place of sugar to sweeten iced tea or lemonade, or follow the lead of trend-setting mixologists who have embraced shrub syrups as a way to add a tart kick to cocktails. The designated drivers and teetotalers at your gathering will appreciate a sophisticated shrub in place of the standard club soda and lime.
As we get ready to revel on America’s birthday, prepare to party like it’s 1776 and celebrate colonial-style with a bottle of aged shrub. It’s the perfect “cure” for the summertime red, white, and blues.
COLONIAL SHRUB SYRUP
1 cup berries or fruit cut in small chunks
1 cup sugar
1 cup apple cider vinegar*
Put fruit in a glass bowl and stir in sugar, mixing until the fruit is coated. Cover bowl (I try to avoid using plastic wrap, so I just rest a plate on top) and put it in the refrigerator for one to several days. The longer the mixture sits, the more flavor will be drawn out by the sugar, but I find that two days is usually sufficient.
When you remove the bowl from the fridge, the fruit should be floating in a watery syrup. There are a couple ways to separate out the fruit. If you want to save the sweetened fruit to use later, you can either remove it with a slotted spoon, or pour the mixture through a strainer, pressing down on the fruit with a spoon or spatula to extract all the liquid, but it will still be coated with some undissolved sugar and you will need to scoop out any remaining sugar in the bowl to add back in to the liquid.
Since I like the least amount of fuss, I simply add the vinegar to the fruit mixture first and stir until most of the sugar is dissolved. Then I pour it through a strainer and press down on the fruit. What remains is a small pile of sweet, vinegar-infused fruit that you can toss in a smoothie or spoon over ice cream (if that sounds unappetizing, you’ve obviously never drizzled balsamic vinegar over vanilla ice cream).
Whether you add the vinegar before or after you strain the fruit, stir well and pour the mixture into clean bottles or jars. Place in the fridge or a cool pantry (shrub syrup does not strictly need to be refrigerated) for one or more weeks before serving. Makes about two cups of syrup.
If you want to get creative, experiment with different combinations of fruit, vinegar, and herbs. For a list of herbs that pair well with summer fruits, click here. You can also make shrub syrups with different types of vinegar, including balsamic, champagne, red wine, rice, sherry, white balsamic, and white wine varieties. Balsamic vinegars should be mixed 50/50 with lighter versions, such as dark balsamic with red wine vinegar (great with strawberries) or white balsamic with champagne vinegar (try it with peaches). Use rice vinegar with plums and Japanese basil for an Asian twist. You can even play around with other kinds of sugar, like turbinado, demerara, or muscovado. The possibilities are endless, so have fun!
*I recommend Bragg’s organic unfiltered apple cider vinegar.
To serve your drinking vinegars in authentic colonial style, purchase tavern shrub glasses from the Williamsburg Marketplace.