What Are Shrubs?

Shrubs vs. Drinking Vinegars

Shrubs are drinks with an interesting history. They are a type of acidulated beverage, which means some sort of acid is added to a spirit, usually citrus like lemon and lime, or vinegar.

So, technically there are two types of shrub, both very closely related. The latter makes a type of shrub otherwise known as ‘drinking vinegars’.

The former has been around since the 15th century, descending from medicinal cordials first made by Italian Apothecaries during the Renaissance. Because distilling was becoming well refined during that period, cordials were alcohol-based and contained various herbs and spices thought to have health benefits.

Once cordials arrived in the UK in the late 15th century, they were initially consumed in small doses as a medicinal drink; but, before long, people were drinking them socially, believing in their aphrodisiac qualities amongst the other health benefits.

Yo, Ho, Ho, and a Bottle of Shrubs

Shrubs were also rather popular in the UK in the 17th century for another reason. Smugglers were known to sink barrels of alcohol offshore to hide them and avoid paying tax.

When the barrels were eventually recovered, fruit juice was added to mask any nasty briney flavours from the seawater. Most often, they were made with rum or brandy and sugar was also added.

Shrubs were sold in all pubs in the UK until the late 1800s with one particular brand J R Phillips remaining a popular choice in Bristol until the 20th century, which you can still buy today.


Shrubs Across the Pond

In Colonial America, shrubs were also cocktails made with drinking vinegars. American shrubs were the product of clever colonists looking for ways to preserve fruit from the heat before the days of refrigeration. Excess fruit was put into crocks (i.e. earthenware pots), with sugar which would ferment into a vinegar. 

Who Invented Shrubs?

There are plenty of stories to be found about who first invented shrubs. Some say the Babylonions first invented them after accidentally leaving a vase of wine out for too long. We do know drinking vinegars have been consumed around the world throughout various points in history. Proving to be a popular thirst quencher on hot days working in fields, there are citations in the bible of Israelites drinking them to cool down, along with accounts found of Italian peasants and haymakers in midland America consuming these thirst quenching brews.

And, it seems that over all this time, here in England we have been drinking this type of shrub for its health benefits, too. British Navy sailors drank it to prevent scurvy. And today, drinking vinegars for health benefits is big business. In recent years we’ve seen a rise in people drinking apple cider vinegar, which is in itself a shrub.

Why Shrubs are Perfect for ‘Sober October’ and ‘Dry January’

Another purpose to shrubs, something important today as ever, is it provides a no/low option. Because of the acidic kick, a shrub is a fantastic non-alcoholic substitute. This has long been recognised, and shrubs were hugely popular with the temperance movement of the 19th century.

Mixing a little shrub with some soda/sparkling water is a great long drink. Try it with other no/low products to make some seriously good mocktails.

Enhancing Cocktails with Shrubs

Shrubs have become increasingly popular for use in cocktails, a trend started in the US around 2011. They can be utilised either with decent measures for loud flavours, or by adding a few dashes, like bitters, to achieve something more nuanced.

The simplest cocktail you can make is to add a little shrub to your spirit of choice and top with soda/sparkling water to make a light and refreshing low calorie treat. Gins work brilliantly thanks to their cohesion with fruit. Though, traditionally, rum was the spirit of choice and there are some great recipes for rum shrub cocktails including daiquiris, yum!

DIY At-Home Shrubs

Shrubs are relatively easy to make at home by mixing equal parts sugar to fruit and chilling for 8 - 48 hours. Fruit is the simplest option but you can add all sorts of herbs and spices to make more complex recipes. Once made, store them in the fridge for around 6-8 weeks.

Recommended Shrubs to Buy

If you don’t have too much time to experiment and perfect your shrub recipe then, hey, there are some good shrubs on the market nowadays! Hudson Standard Shrubs are made with love and it shows; the brand recently picked up a star at the Great Taste Awards.

Hudson’s Cassis shrub is a particularly good example from the range. It’s incredible purple colour comes from blackberries and black raspberries making it easy to whip up bright berry cocktails like a Kir Royal or Gin Bramble. Due to the depth of flavour, there are also chocolate tones, making this an excellent shrub to cook with too, giving some fantastic rich flavours to sauces.

Time to Raise a Glass...

 Shrubs, a superhero of a drink. An elixir of health benefits, a serious thirst quencher, a versatile ingredient and a fantastic alcohol substitute. A drink that has been enjoyed around the globe for six centuries, and now it’s our turn.

So, let’s raise a glass to honour the mighty shrub and together consume a bit of history while concocting creative drinks with this newly revitalised libation!

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