With apologies to Monty Python, when you hear someone wax poetic about shrubs these days, they're likely referring to a beverage, as opposed to landscaping. Shrubs have become tragically hip of late, and for good reason; they're a delightful drink resurrected from colonial days.
There are two primary variants of the shrub as beverage; which one you're thinking of probably depends on which side of the pond you were raised on.
Here in the former colonies, shrubs were vinegar and fruit based creations popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, with their origins in home preserving, the vinegar having been employed to extend the shelf life of fruit and fruit extractions. Over in England, shrubs were blends of booze, citrus and sugar, drunk iced, or used as a base for punch; this version's roots sprung from popular patent medicines of the time. Both variants were often infused with herbs and spices and use in mixed drinks as well as flying solo.
American shrubs fell out of favor in the early 1900s, with the rising popularity of home refrigeration. Recent resurgence in home growing and preserving has renewed interest in 'drinking vinegars,' as shrubs were sometimes known. That has lead in turn to many commercial offerings, and a subsequent rise in price of same. Fortunately, shrubs are simple and inexpensive to make at home. Shrubs are a sweet-tart treat, and readily lend themselves to experimentation. Combining a favorite fruit or two with a complimentary herb or spice yields a truly refreshing drink far better for us than the artificial crap so popular these days.
Making shrubs requires a few simple steps and about a week's time, so it's a fun project to finish on a spring weekend.
We'll start with a basic recipe and expand from there.
1 Navel Orange
2 Cups Cane Sugar
2 Cups Apple Cider Vinegar
Rinse the citrus, then place that in a large mixing bowl with 4 cups cold water and 1/4 cup white vinegar. Allow the fruit to soak for 15 minutes, then pour out the water, rinse and pat the citrus dry. This step is highly recommended for all store bought fruit, as a means of removing wax and residual chemicals prior to use.
Zest all citrus, then juice, and rough chop the remainder. Toss all into a glass or stainless steel bowl, preferably one with a nice, tight fitting lid.
Add the sugar and toss to thoroughly coat the fruit.
Cover the bowl tightly and refrigerate for three days, tossing gently once each day; the sugar will draw moisture from the citrus as it blends.
Remove the fruit from fridge and add the vinegar, stirring to blend thoroughly. Cover and return the bowl to the fridge for three more days, stirring once daily.
Now you're ready for final clarifying. Wash thoroughly and then sterilize a glass jar or bottle by immersion in water at a rolling boil for 3-4 minutes.
Remove the bowl from the fridge and carefully run the mixture through a double mesh strainer, (A colander with cheese cloth will also work.) squeeze the fruit by hand to get all the liquid out, then discard the fruit.
Strain a second run using a couple of layers of cheesecloth, or a single layer of butter muslin; this will remove excess pulp and clarify the final product nicely.
Pour the syrup into your sterilized glass bottle.
The syrup will be good for 2 weeks refrigerated, though I doubt it'll last that long.
Portion 2-3 ounces into a pint glass, then top up with sparkling water or seltzer and plenty of ice. A sprig of mint with a leaf rubbed around the rim makes a lovely garnish.
There you have the basics. The process is virtually identical for any variant you can think of. If you're using fresh or dried herbs and spices, they'll do best added with the vinegar, (for instance, that mint I mentioned makes a very nice adjunct to the basic citrus version we just made.)
Lemon, lime, Meyer lemon, orange, mandarins, tangerines, grapefruit, yuzu, berries, pomegranate and cranberry, solo or combined, will all make wonderful variants. By the same token, different vinegars yield broadly different shrubs; distilled white, cider, champagne, balsamic, wine, and fruit or herb infused have tremendous potential. Certainly there's room to play with sweeteners as well; local honeys, agave nectar, or raw sugars all will impart different notes to the finished product. Finally, add herbs and spices and the possibilities are bound only by your creative imagination. Here are a few more to try, then strike out on your own.
Very Lemony Shrub
4 Meyer Lemons
2 Cups Cane Sugar
2 Cups Champagne Vinegar
About 4″ fresh Lemongrass
5-6 Kefir Lime Leaves, (Fresh is best, dried will do)
1/4 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
Prepare as detailed above. Cut lemongrass into roughly 1/4″ rounds and add that plus the lime leaves to the initial mix with the sugar. Add the lemon thyme when you add the vinegar.
8 ounces fresh or frozen Cranberries
2 Opal or Honeycrisp Apples
1 small Lemon
1 1/2 Cups Cane Sugar
2 Cups Red Wine Vinegar
1/2 Cup Water
1/2 teaspoon Ginger Root
1/4 teaspoon Fennel Seed
Pinch of Sea Salt
Rough chop apples, zest, juice, and rough chop remained of lemon.
Combine cranberries, apples, water, salt and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Simmer until about half the cranberries have popped.
Remove from heat, add lemon zest, juice, and pulp. Store in the fridge for 3 days.
Remove, mince ginger and add, plus fennel seed and vinegar; store refrigerated three more days.
Strain and bottle as per above.
3 large Pink or Red Grapefruit
2 Cups Cane Sugar
2 Cups Rice Wine Vinegar
1 small Lime
2 sprigs Fresh Mint
2 Tablespoons Cashews
Zest, juice and rough chop grapefruit and lime, add to sugar and rest 3 days.
Chops cashews, and add with vinegar and lime for next 3 day rest.
Strain and bottle as above.