Drinking History-Fruit Shrubs

Red drink in rock glass with ice

A couple of weeks ago I posted about how we went grape picking and the numerous jars of jelly my wife made with them. I also mentioned that we had plenty of leftover grapes for pie making and for me to experiment with. For awhile now, I have had a renewed interest in making shrub, a classic colonial American drink with a long history. With all the extra grapes, now was the perfect time to experiment.

Shrubs can be categorized into alcoholic and non-alcoholic. The alcoholic versions are basically fruit and sugar infused brandy or rum. Nowadays, we would probably just refer to them as liqueurs. For years I’ve been playing around with these and using them as Christmas gifts, but this wasn’t the “shrub” I was interested in. I was more intrigued by the non-alcoholic version, which were sometimes also referred to as “drinking vinegar.”

Yes, I know…it sounds strange. Drinking Vinegar. You have to be kidding me. But it’s not as strange as it sounds. We American love sweet-tart beverages. We love citrus drinks of all kinds and think about soda. It’s loaded with acids (citric usually) to give them a tart edge. Drinking Vinegars are merely the forerunner of our modern day soda, and a great way to preserve the fresh flavors of in season fruit for winter when fresh fruit wasn’t available. Unfortunately, their popularity waned with the advent of refrigeration and modern transportation making it possible to consume fresh fruit all year round, even in the coldest of climes. And as sodas started making their debuts, with their phosphoric and citric acids, Drinking Vinegars fell even further into obscurity.

They say that everything old becomes new again, and recently a few daring, young entrepreneurs have discovered the joys of making and drinking shrubs and so the drink has been rescued, at least temporarily, from oblivion. And it’s not surprising, not with the recent interest in home brewing sodas and kombucha. It’s another way to connect with our past and add new and interesting flavors to our lives.

Making shrubs is really simple. The most important thing to keep in mind is to use a good quality vinegar. It doesn’t have to be $30 an ounce aged balsamic, but it can’t be $1.99 a gallon distilled vinegar either. A good quality cider or wine (either red or white) vinegar will usually be the vinegar of choice although adding a bit of balsamic or sherry vinegar might give an interesting flavor to your final product. I probably wouldn’t use those last 2 vinegars as the main vinegar in your shrub. Look at them as was way to add a little accent to your drink.

You can make shrub in less than an hour, by making a syrup with the sugar and vinegar. Mix the two together, bring to a boil to dissolve the sugar and add the fruit, cooking for another 5 minutes or so. But I prefer the longer, infusion method. It takes 9 days to make, but I think you are rewarded with a syrup that has a much brighter, fresher flavor than that of the cooked version.

As to what fruit to use, that is up to you. For my first experiment I used Concord grapes, but any grape, berry, or cherry would work, as well as peaches, pears, apples, rhubarb, apricots or citrus fruits. Or, better yet, a mix of different, in-season fruits. For sweetener, granulated sugar is most commonly used, but why not experiment with brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, can syrup or a mixture of those.

So the final question is; what does it taste like? Personally, I’ve fallen in love with shrubs, but you do have to like vinegar. No it’s not like drinking straight vinegar, but the vinegar does come through somewhat. The Concord Grape Shrub I made had a wonderful sweet-tart flavor full of that jammy concord grape essence with a back note that reminded me that the drink was based on vinegar, but it didn’t over power the other flavors.

Below is the basic outline of the recipe I used. Feel free to experiment and change it up to suit your tastes and to take advantage of the fruits that are in season.

Fruit Shrub
makes approximately 1 quart of syrup

3-4 cups Fresh fruit, grapes and berries left whole, other fruits cut into 1″ chunks
2 cups Sugar, granulated
2 cups Vinegar, good quality, best bets are cider or wine vinegar

In a clean and sterilized half gallon canning jar mix the fruit and the sugar, mashing the fruit lightly so that it releases its juices. Cover and allow to sit for 48 hours in a dark, room temperature place. Shake mixture once or twice to help dissolve the sugar.

After 2 days, add the vinegar and allow to sit for another 7 days, in a dark, room temperature place. After 7 days, strain the liquid off of the fruit, pressing lightly on the fruit to help extract the juices. Strain again through a coffee filter or cheesecloth to get a clear liquid.

At this point the shrub is ready to drink, but it’s best to refrigerate the shrub for a week or 2. This will allow the vinegar to mellow a bit more and for the flavors to mature.

To serve mix approximately 2 ounces of syrup with 6-8 ounces of water, either still or carbonated. I prefer to serve this as a “soda” and mix it with water I’ve carbonated with my SodaStream. Serve over ice.

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