Lively, sweet and explosively juicy, shrubs are a delicious shortcut for preparing summer cocktails at home. Drinkable fruit and sugar-flavored vinegars, they invite experimentation: throw in your crushed berries, your overripe peaches that long to be used. In a few days you will be rewarded with the perfect mixer for Seltzer, Pet-Nat or your favorite schnapps.
“Shrubs were a very popular method of preserving fruit in the American colonial era, also because water was very unsafe to drink at the time, ”says cocktail historian Al Culliton, who Al’s Cocktail Club. “I’m a big fan; they add a nice flavor to otherwise heavy drinks, are stable enough to have a longer shelf life than citrus juice, and can be easily portioned.”
While their medicinal and recreational uses stretch well back into American culinary history, shrubs have easily made their way into modern day bars and grocery stores. You may remember the Great Drinking Vinegar Renaissance of the 2010s, when Pok Pok chef Andy Ricker drew on Southeast Asia’s drinking vinegar tradition and American bushes to create the Som liquid that wowed much of the food world. Today, those syrupy bottles have been renamed by Kombucha’s cousin into a cocktail-ready blender, while new brands like brands Shrubby and Stone fruit Angle for the cooling aisle. But even with ready-made options that are clearly on the rise, it is still worth making shrubs, especially when the fruits of summer are ready.
Don’t let the Kombucha comparison fool you: shrubs are easy to prepare yourself, without probiotic mushrooms or fermentation. And the drinks that you can mix with shrubs that have a double serving of sweetness and acidity are exceptional. It all boils down to a simple basic recipe: 1½ cups of fruit + 1 cup of sugar + 1/4th Teaspoon of salt + 1 cup [any] vinegar.
First mix the fruit, sugar and salt in a large sealable jar or container and let stand for a few hours at room temperature. The salt and sugar help to macerate the liquid from the fruit. When the mixture looks really juicy, add your vinegar and put it in the fridge for a few days so the flavors melt together. You could strain and use it right away, but if you wait those few days, more of that precious fruit flavor will unfold.
This is a basic shrub formula, so consider it a starting point and raid the fruit basket. I’ve made delicious shrubs with everything from rhubarb in the spring to medlars stolen from my parents’ garden.
Brooke Marple, founder of the Salt Lake City shrub brand Stone fruit, is a wealth of taste inspirations. She sprinkles honeydew and kiwi with perilla and gilds ripe strawberries with basil and balsamic vinegar. Marple says her preparations often aim to hit three main flavor notes: something juicy and sweet (fruit, of course), a spicy mid-tone like habanero or ginger to balance out the punch of the vinegar, and a grounding, earthy bass note (beet, tomato) . It leaves sensational, hyper-seasonal fruits such as oro blanco and mulberry alone to honor the historical importance of shrubs as fruit preservation.
Whatever ingredients you choose to use, consider their natural sweetness and juiciness before adding to the recipe. Marple helps speed up maceration for tougher ingredients like ginger and celery by mixing, grating, or otherwise chopping them up. It also mixes or crushes herbs to express their aromatic oils and removes the peel and pulp from citrus fruits to ward off unwanted bitterness.
Sugar and salt will help remove the juice from the ingredients. So play with ratios based on the juiciness of your chosen products. “For juicy stuff like watermelon, cut the sugar to half its normal consumption and then increase the salt,” says Culliton. “A hearty tomato bush is also much better if you don’t have a lot of sugar in it.”
Next, consider the vinegar. Raw, organic, unfiltered vinegar is full of probiotics and makes for the most active fermentation. Shrub making is a great opportunity to experiment with some of the most intensely probiotic small batch vinegars on the market – I made an extraordinary strawberry, rhubarb and chamomile shrub using Acid League’s Meyer Lemon Honey Vinegar – but classic bragg works great too. Vinegar also develops the final shrub by merging with the juice of the fruit, which allows for some cool mix-and-match taste opportunities. Looking for food for thought? Culliton likes to combine pineapple with sherry vinegar, blueberries with apple cider vinegar, red fruits such as strawberries and raspberries with red wine vinegar and stone fruits with white wine vinegar.
Once your shrub is chilled and strained, it’s time to play bartending. Start by stirring a tablespoon into seltzer or iced tea for an ultra-refreshing afternoon drink … or break out the alcohol. Culliton recommends rinsing the shrub for citrus juice to make an easy sour: 2 ounces of an unaged spirit + ¾ ounce of shrub + ½ to ¾ ounce of simple syrup.
Shrubs can be great for shaking drinks because of the body and texture of the vinegar, says Ned King, bar manager at Huge in Easthampton, Massachusetts. For Roosevelt Punch, he created a 19th-century raspberry bush.
At the Receivable on New York’s Lower East Side, a Korean pear bush is shaken with Lsang-infused soju and eucalyptus bitters for a drink called smokes. “Alcohol and vinegar react to form a foamy texture when shaken, which is similar to egg white, but is less egg-shaped and stiff,” says owner Katie Rue. “When it’s fresh, you can see half an inch of foam at the top.”
There are many ways to use shrubs beyond the bar. Splash something into jam or fruit chips to enhance the flavor, mix into vinaigrettes, or drizzle over a platter of mozzarella. Borrow a page from Marple’s book and have an ice swim! Depending on which fruits you have used, you can also use the used fruit “cucumbers”. “I recently made a strawberry-rhubarb-basil bush and after sifting it out, the lovely strawberries still had flavor and integrity,” says Marple. “I made them into a chutney because they had the acidity, fruity chunkiness and sweetness a chutney needs.”
For my next shrub project, I’m looking for my own overflowing fruit bowl as inspiration. Tender sour cherries and chubby donut peaches have hit the market, and suddenly I’m researching ways to buy red wine vinegar in bulk. Even my herbs on the windowsill feel meant to be tossed into a glass of macerated fruit. It’s going to be a sticky, sweet summer.
Aliza Abarbanel is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn. She loves compost, splashes, and eats too many plums.