Serious Eats: Drinks
Cocktail 101: How to Make Shrub Syrups
Whether raspberry, strawberry, blackberry, or gooseberry, berries seem to fly through our local market, gone before you even know to miss them. I decided last year to preserve them for my future pleasure.
Now, this ain't Home Canning 101, so there'll be no jams, jellies, or marmalades here. I'm a cocktail geek; and among my clan there's a great love for shrub syrups, and that's what we'll be talking about today.
What's a Shrub?
In beverage history, the word shrub has carried several meanings. For our purposes, it's enough to say that a shrub is an acidulated beverage made of fruit juice, sugar, and other ingredients. Where things get complicated is that the acid varies by recipe; it can be either fruit juice or vinegar. Additionally, some shrub recipes are prepared using alcohol that steeps with the fruit, acid, and sugar. Finally, hardcore shrubbers make their own vinegar, using fruit juice, sugar, and wild yeasts from the air.
In any case, the sugar, acid, and optional alcohol preserve the fruit juice, and in fact that was one original purpose of the shrub. Prior to the invention of refrigeration, a shrub syrup was a means of preserving fruit long past its picking. Shrubs were popular in Colonial America, mixed with cool water to provide a pick-me-up on hot summer days.
A proper shrub has a flavor that's both tart and sweet, so it stimulates the appetite while quenching thirst. The advent of industrially processed foods and home refrigeration combined to nearly eliminate the shrub from American foodways. Only family traditions, Colonial-themed establishments (such as City Tavern in Philadelphia), and a few holdout farms (Tait Farms, for one) have helped the shrub survive.
Happily, they're very easy to make at home, and for beverage lovers (of the boozy or non-boozy variety), they're also quite versatile. And, if you're up for a summer (and fall) of shrub-making, you can start with strawberries when they come into season, and move straight through all of the summer's berries and fruits.
I made so many last summer that my wife was amused (and a little irritated) at all the bottles in the fridge. The laugh's on her; now that she's pregnant and abstaining from alcohol, I have an ample supply of fruity and tart syrups ready for her NA quaffing.
So visit your nearest farm stand, gather up your other ingredients, and read on.
You have three essential ingredients to play around with:
- Fruit: berries, peaches, plums, rhubarb, apricots. Go crazy. Start with the most perfect and pristine specimens you can find, utterly without blemish or flaw. Wait, scratch that. Do the exact opposite of what I just said. You're making a syrup here, not presenting a fruit basket to a movie star. Ask around at your farmer's market, and see whether any vendor will sell you their seconds—the fruit that might ordinarily wind up back at the farm in a compost pile. This is perfect for syrup-making and should save you some money.
- Sugar: I always use basic refined cane sugar. Why? Only because I've never gotten around to trying turbinado or other fancy brown sugars. They're on my list of future variations to test out, so if you've tried them, let me know your results. But start with cane sugar to master the technique, and then branch out later if you wish.
- Vinegar:I usually use either red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar. I find they're less bland than white vinegar but don't add too much funkiness to the final product. Some shrubbers have used balsamic to great success. Here's an example of a Black Cherry Balsamic Shrub that sounds fabulous, especially with the addition of peppercorn and cinnamon.
Shrubbing Methods: Pros and Cons
Now, before I describe my method for shrub making, I have to say, it's not the only way to do it. It may not even be the easiest way to make a shrub, and it's certainly not the fastest. If you look at most other sources for shrub recipes, you'll find that they call for a stove-cooked syrup—essentially, a fruity simple syrup with vinegar added in at the end.
That works well, and by all means, if that's what you want to do, I won't magically appear in your kitchen and stop you. After all, it's quick and easy:
- Add equal parts of sugar and water to a saucepan, and heat and stir until the sugar dissolves.
- Add berries or fruit and simmer until the fruit's juice blends well into the syrup.
- Let that mixture cool. Strain out the solids.
- Add vinegar to the syrup, bottle it all up, and store in the fridge.
That's exactly how I once made shrubs. But in July of last year, I was at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. Fellow Serious Drinker Paul Clarke was leading a seminar on aperitif cocktails. His co-panelist was Neyah White, a former bartender who now works for Skyy Spirits, which imports Suntory whiskey, among other brands.
The topic meandered briefly from the topic of aperitifs to that of shrubs, and Neyah described the cold process he uses for shrub-making. Neyah, it turns out, advocates against cooking a shrub syrup, feeling that you lose some of the freshness and brightness of the fruit. So instead, he macerates fresh fruit in sugar—for anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days. The sugar slowly draws the juices out of the fruit and makes a syrup. You strain that off the fruit and mix the resulting syrup with vinegar.
The tradeoff here, at least from Neyah's perspective, is time versus flavor. The cold process takes longer but the fruit flavor remains purer and brighter. I started making shrubs this way right after Tales, and I've never gone back to the cooked process.
Cold Shrubbin' with Flavor
Now, the cold-process method of shrub-making is a little more complicated than the cooked method, but really, it's not much so. You don't need any special equipment or ingredients, and as long as you have space in your fridge to stash a bowl of fruit, you should be fine.
- Wash and prepare the fruit. Most berries can be lightly crushed, even with your hands, if you prefer. Strawberries should be hulled and quartered. Stone fruit needs to be quartered and pitted.
- Cover the fruit with sugar. Neyah White recommends a ratio of one part each of fruit, sugar, and vinegar, and that's a great place to start. So to, say, one cup of fruit, add one cup sugar. Stir to combine, cover, and stash in the fridge.
- After several hours, or a day or two, your fruit should be surrounded by juice and syrup, like so:
- Strain the syrup away from the solids, pressing lightly on the solids to expel any stubborn juice. If any sugar is clinging to the bowl, scrape it into the syrup. It should settle to the bottom, underneath the syrup. This is fine, as I'll explain later.
- Add the vinegar, and whisk to combine, until sugar is dissolved.
- Pour through a funnel into a clean bottle. Cap, shake well, and refrigerate.
- Check the shrub periodically. Some sugar may settle out onto the bottom of the bottle. If so, shake well to combine. Eventually, the acids in the juice and vinegar will dissolve the sugar.
Now taste. What you will undoubtedly find is that the aroma and flavor of your new shrub is pungent. You'll taste a strong tartness from the vinegar, a strong sweetness from the sugar, and the fruit flavor as an element that pulls everything together.
What fascinates me, at least, about shrubs is that they mellow with time. And I mean, they mellow a lot. The tartness and sweetness both remain, but they start to harmonize after just a few weeks in the fridge. So what you have is a lightly sweet and tart syrup with a rich fruit flavor.
And something else is going on chemically that I think is cool: you see, the whosiwhatsis engages with the frim-fram...oh, I'll let the resident chemist at the blog Cocktail
Virgin Slut explain:
When a shrub ages, it is like an ecosystem. The ambient yeast (yeast on the fruit itself and yeast from the air) turns the sugar into alcohol, and the acetobacter (the bacteria in unpasteurized vinegar) turns the alcohol into more vinegar. Eventually this will stabilize and not turn the whole shrub into fruit vinegar since the bacteria-induced pH change will stall out the yeast's fermentation process (and thus the bacteria's acetic acid-producing pathway).
Okay, Professor, I'll take your word for it.
Get the Recipes
How to Use Shrubs
Shrubs can add depth and complexity to a cocktail, but you have to be careful. Since they're already acidic, they don't always play well with citrus juice, so if you're adding juice, use a light hand and taste as you're building your ingredients.
Try using a base spirit, a shrub, a complementary liqueur, and bitters—for example, rum, blackberry shrub, ginger liqueur, and lime bitters. You'll have to consider how the sweetness of the shrub balances out with the sweet liqueur—just experiment until you have the right balance.
Finally, for a light and refreshing cocktail, perfect for summer, pair a small amount of shrub (about half an ounce) with 2 ounces of vermouth or sherry. Top that with some seltzer or club soda, and you have a light and lovely treat. And it's so low in alcohol, you have two!
Or three. I won't tell.
Bonus link: Amy Eddings, from the New York public-radio station WNYC, describes an encounter with Beet and Lemon Shrub, at Russ and Daughters, one of my very favorite places in the long history of places. If you've tried this Beet Shrub, please sound off in the comments. I would love to know what it's like.
About the Author: Michael Dietsch writes A Dash of Bitters. He is an accidental bartender, boozologist, and fruity tart. He lives with a spirited female and crazy felines in Providence.