A Shrub Is Not A Shrubbery: Rediscovering A Historic Recipe For Cocktails

When is a “shrub”, not a shrub?  When it is a drink, not a plant!  In fact, these aciduated (read vinegar based) beverages are as old as history itself.

In my recently released book, “Bitters and Shrub Syrup Cocktails”, I revealed the secrets of these refreshing beverages and attempted to introduce a flavor profile from the past into the modern era of creative mixology.  But first, what is a shrub?

In simple terms, a shrub is a mixer that is included in both mocktails (cocktails without the kick) and craft cocktails.  In the days before refrigeration, it was pretty evident that without some means for food preservation, keeping items fresh was difficult at best. Gastric blockages from eating food that was less than pure were the norm; people just didn’t live long because of food borne illnesses.

Back in the times of the Egyptians, the roots were sown for the argument that food and drinks were less injurious when they didn’t poison the imbiber.  Food borne illnesses could be prevented or at least minimized by the use of an acid.  In this case, the combination of vinegar and sugar when added to either fruits or vegetables contributed to the rudimentary food preservation system that existed into modern times.

vinegar based shrub drink cocktail

Milea February 2019 728×90

Many people have long practiced food preservation methods; the use of vinegar is a major catalyst for adding both spark and health to the end result.  This is of course the refreshing kick that comes from drinking beverages, (and to a lesser extent) eating foods that are preserved with vinegar.  But why vinegar?

Vinegar is a powerful preservative and it also adds to digestion.  The acid layer that envelops the sweet sumptuousness of the fruit (often less than freshly picked) is beguiling in a liquid form, giving each sweet and tangy sip a depth unheard of prior.  And the end result is good health for the entire digestive tract.  Vinegar, after all is what adds balance to the body.

Have you ever felt less than healthy from eating heavy food?  Take a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar and add it to a glass of fizzy water, drink it down and feel better quickly.

Let’s fast forward to the Colonial era when intoxicants were less than high quality. Masking the often-assertive flavors of poorly made liquors led to the invention of Punch.  Punch was a combination of acid (usually in the form of citrus) to sweet to savory- all meant to intoxicate the drinker with a minimum of effort. Northeasterners discovered that adding preserved fruits to their spirituous beverages made for a refreshing drink, one also packed full of health giving ingredients.

Was the shrub the original health drink?  Certainly to a degree, it was used for good health, right up to the time when soda pop was invented.  And soda pop as we all know, spelled out the demise of the shrub until just recently when a resurgence of old methods took place in the cocktail bar.

Shrubs are simply made with only three ingredients, fruit (or a vegetable), sugar, and some type of vinegar.  Here is a simple recipe for a shrub that can be produced in about a week using easily acquired ingredients. It does have to be aged after the mashing of fruit, sugar and vinegar, but that timing is really up to you.  It can age quickly or over several weeks.

I call this shrub the Squire’s Shrub.  It is a very easy shrub to master even with less than perfectly fresh fruit.  This is, in actuality, the preference for a softer (to the palate), yet pleasingly tangy, end result with or without an intoxicating hit of liquor.

It’s true, the Squire’s Shrub does require a couple of extra steps, but I promise it’s worth your while. Your patience will be rewarded with lush, crimson-colored syrup that’s straight out of the eighteenth century, when America was in its infancy and early pharmacists would have relied on their gardens to supply the basis for their healing tonics. (Rhubarb has been used as a digestive aid for thousands of years.)

There’s nothing difficult to it, though, beyond a little extra mixing, and roasting your fruit before making the shrub. The vinegar’s high acidity cuts through the sumptuous, charred, caramelized flavor of the roasted strawberries and rhubarb, making it a seductive addition to gin, vodka, and rum-based libations.

Squire’s Shrub


  • 2 cups (340 g) Roasted strawberries and rhubarb
  • 1 cup (200 g) Demerara sugar
  • 1 cup (235 ml) Light balsamic vinegar

Time: 3–4 weeks

Preparation: Add the roasted strawberries and rhubarb to a nonreactive bowl. Cover with the sugar, stir to combine, and cover it with plastic wrap. Leave at cool room temperature for 24 hours. Stir frequently during this time to combine as the berries and rhubarb give off their liquid. Place a nonreactive strainer above a second nonreactive bowl, pour the fruit-sugar mixture into the strainer, and use a wooden spoon to mash the mixture in order to release as much liquid as possible. (Reserve the mashed fruit to use in cooking or baking, if you like.) Add the balsamic vinegar to the liquid, stir, and let the mixture sit for a few hours. Funnel into sterilized bottles or jars, and age for 3–4 weeks in the refrigerator. This shrub will last nearly indefinitely, but if it begins to quiver, dance, or speak in foreign languages, throw it out.

Serving Suggestion: Add a few ounces of the Squire’s Shrub to a glass of cool seltzer water for a refreshing pick me up, or add to a glass of rum to make a cocktail. This Shrub is for good health!

For more insights and recipes on a vinegar based shrub, read this post by Warren Bobrow.