The basic idea was to preserve fruit for later eating, when the idea of modern refrigeration was not yet conceptualized. Vinegar being an exceptional preservative, it not only retained the flavors of the berries, but when this leftover product was mixed with water, it became the very first shrub. Originally popularized as a poor man’s drink, the first mention of shrubs dates back to 1747 in The Gentleman’s Magazine (London).
Popularity in America
During colonial times, shrubs became popular in the United States. It was natural for them to survive there longer due to the onset of the Prohibition era (the decade-plus prohibition between the 1920s and 1933 when, in accordance with the Eighteenth Amendment passed by the government of the United States, the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol was illegal). People believed that vinegar had a similar kick to that first drink of hard liquor, and so the shrub became a banned alcohol substitute in the 1920s and early 30s in America.
However, if this short journey through time of taste buds has awakened your senses, then the stories of legendary bartender, Mr. Jeremiah ‘Jerry’ Thomas, will be right up your alley. The father of American mixology, Jerry Thomas, was a pioneer in popularizing cocktails across the country with some of the most fascinating recipes and extravagant showmanship. Having written the world’s first bartending guide, ‘How to mix the drinks or companion of Bon Vivant“, Thomas paved the way for the American school of drinking for the next century (and beyond). A man clearly ahead of his time, he made his own bitters, infused cocktails with medicinal herbs and roots locally sourced, and mastered complex formulas for cocktails, while creating a spectacle for his patrons at the El Dorado gaming lounge in San Francisco.
Where are the shrubs today?
Meanwhile, the shrub has seen a renaissance in recent years as mixologists around the world rediscover old bar manuals and techniques lost during the Prohibition era. It’s an exciting time for bar lovers like you and me. Bartenders and mixologists looking to incorporate the richness of fresh fruit into their drinks have found their treasure in the shrubs. There’s never been a better time to say goodbye to artificially flavored, preservative-laden fruit syrups and say hello to the all-natural cocktail mixer, the Shrub. The acidity of the vinegar in the shrubs provides tanginess, intensifying the flavor of the fruit in the same way that the acidity of lemons balances the sugar in lemonade. The depth and complexity provided by just a few ounces of a highly concentrated shrub is enough to take your average cocktail to a whole new level. And this paradigm shift in using natural cocktail mixers is here to stay. We are seeing enthusiasm in the bar industry for artisan syrups and bitters, which taste unique and sometimes even long forgotten.
Personally, we’re just a fan of the fact that there’s so much room to play with drinks when it comes to shrubbery. Rum, whiskey, vodka, gin, beer… you name it. Plus, you don’t even have to like alcohol to enjoy a good old shrub. Top it all off with club soda or ISH, and you’re good to go.
In the appendix, some of our favorite cocktail recipes with shrubs:
Raspberry GnJ (Gin & Jun)
Description: Raspberry, ginger and Jun mint paired with gin.
(1 ounce = 30 ml)
Raspberry, ginger and mint from Local Ferment Co
Gin – 2 ounces
Angostura bitter – to taste
Pour the gin into a chilled Burgundy or wine glass and garnish with the Jun Raspberry, Ginger and Mint. Add 2-3 ice cubes, stir and chill the drink. Add a pinch of Angostura bitters and garnish with a julienne of ginger or an orange zest.
The old-fashioned cherry
Description: Cherry, vanilla and cocoa shrub from LFC paired with whiskey.
(1 ounce = 30 ml)
Shrub Cherry, Vanilla and Cocoa from Local Ferment Co – 20 ml
Local Ferment Co’s Cherry, Vanilla & Cocoa Jam – 1 tsp
Whiskey – 2oz
Muddle the cherry tree with the jam. Strain the mixture into a highball glass. Pour the whiskey. Finish with 1-2 ice cubes and an orange zest to garnish.
Contributions from Akash Devaraju & Noopur Porwal, Local Ferment Co.