December 01, 2022 by Karl Tessendorf
11Cocktails are garnished with crazy ingredients these days (we’re looking at you Bloody Mary with a whole roast chicken), but fortunately, the shrub cocktail contains no actual garden cuttings. What it does have though is a delicious syrup of sugar, fruit, and vinegar. A shrub is basically a drinking vinegar that’s used to add flavour and complexity to cocktails. It’s the perfect example of old-school ingenuity resurfacing in the modern age of shrub cocktail making. Join us for a short trip back in time as we learn more about the shrub, how to make one, and when to use it.
What’s a shrub?
17th-century England had a lot going on during the industrial revolution, but the one thing they hadn’t cracked yet was refrigeration. This meant that fresh fruits and veggies had a relatively short shelf life unless they were preserved or pickled. Fruit was often the first to spoil but the invention of the shrub changed everything.
Overripe fruit was macerated with sugar and then mixed with vinegar to form a syrup. The antibacterial qualities and preserving power of vinegar meant the shrub would keep for months. It was all the goodness of fruit captured in vinegar syrup that could be mixed with water to create a refreshing beverage.
At its core, a shrub is a mixture of equal parts fruit, sugar, and vinegar which can either be made with or without heat. The cold method takes a few days but it’s easier on the fruit and some say yields a better flavour. The hot method is faster, but you sacrifice the brightness of the fruit flavour. If you want fresh flavours then go for the cold method. If you want a jammy or caramelised flavour profile, then opt for the hot.
Once the process is complete, the mixture is strained into a sterilised glass jar then sealed and refrigerated. Shrubs also get better over time in the fridge so don’t be afraid to age them.
Choosing a vinegar & sugar
Like any recipe, the quality of your ingredients determines the quality of the finished product. Shrubs are no different so use good-quality vinegar. Apple cider vinegar is a great starting point but as you progress, feel free to experiment with different kinds of vinegar. Red wine vinegar has a punchy bite that works brilliantly with stone fruit or berries. White balsamic vinegar is great too but regular balsamic vinegar can be overpowering so be careful.
White sugar is a dependable option that will always give good results. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, then dive into the world of dark sugars like turbinado or demerara. The rich caramel flavour of these sugars is excellent with apples or stone fruits. If you plan ahead, you can craft your shrub recipe to pair with the spirit in your cocktail. Imagine a cinnamon apple shrub made with turbinado sugar in a dark rum cocktail. Hmmm, hmmm *chef’s kiss.
Making the syrup
For today’s syrup recipe we’re going with the cold method and the recipe is super simple. It does take a few days so plan accordingly. This is a basic recipe and once you’ve mastered it, you can add flourishes of fresh herbs or spices to create your signature cocktail shrub recipe. To make a bigger batch you simply multiply the ingredients to suit your needs.
- 1 cup mixed berries, roughly chopped and crushed
- 1 cup white sugar
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
- Add the berries and sugar to a bowl with a lid and mix well to combine. Cover and place in the fridge for 24-48 hours. Stir 2-3 times over that period
- Strain the fruit through a fine mesh strainer into a sterilised glass jar and press lightly on the fruit to extract maximum juice. Save the fruit pulp for a smoothie
- Pour in the vinegar and stir with a sterilised spoon
- Seal and place in the fridge for 2 days to infuse before tasting. Shake it up periodically to dissolve any residual sugar
Making a shrub drink
Now that you’ve got your shrub syrup, mixing up a tasty beverage is as easy as stirring 30-60 ml of syrup into a glass of club soda with ice. Garnish it with a few fresh berries and you’ve got yourself a thirst-quenching drink fit for 17th-century English royalty.
Using a shrub in cocktails
The best shrub cocktail is all about finding the perfect balance of flavours and this takes a little practice. The best method is to go by taste, but 30 ml is usually a good starting point. Shrubs are great in cocktails with lots of ice which will mellow the flavours over time. One thing to remember is that shrubs and citrus juice together can be overly acidic so go easy on the citrus.
A simple recipe to play around with is 30 ml shrub, 60 ml spirit, and 90 ml soda water. Once you’ve got that down then try adding a dash of bitters or a liqueur. If you think it needs a touch more sweetness, then add some simple syrup. The shrub cocktail is your playground so go wild.
You also might like: The Fascinating History of the Highball Cocktail.
Some shrub cocktails to explore
1. Berry Shrub
Our recipe above is your key to success for a tasty Berry Shrub cocktail. Mix it with your favourite spirit, a dash of bitters, and top it up with club soda.
2. Strawberry Shrub
For a summery Strawberry Shrub cocktail, try a simple mix of strawberry Shrub, gin, and club soda.
3. Island Oasis
The Island Oasis is a riff on the Mai Tai made famous by bartender and cocktail educator, Jena Ellenwood. It uses topical pineapple shrub and coconut water to create an ultra-refreshing cocktail.
4. Peach & Pineau Shrub
The Peach & Pineau Shrub is a staple at London’s Trailer Happiness bar, and it’s made from aperitif vinegar and fresh peaches.
5. Bourbon Apple Cider Shrub
Sweet and spicy with a long oaky finish, the Bourbon Apple Cider Shrub is perfect for the colder months.