Anyone who loves movies can tell you that the famous Knights Who Say Ni in Monty Python’s Holy Grail have a thing for requiring shrubbery from passers-by.
But it takes a true fruit fan – or, more likely, a mixologist – to know that the demand for a shrub might not be about a plant at all, but an order for a plant-based drink.
That’s right: Shrubs aren’t just found in the forest. You can see them stacked in any well-stocked cocktail bar. And the stuff can add some serious fruit to the punch.
But if the idea of a drinkable shrub makes you shrug, read on to find out all about the strangely sippable solution.
Shrubs, the cocktail component, got their start all the way back in the 16 th century, when the concept became popular across England as a way to mix up anything from soda water to sparkling wine.
The original incarnation included a mixture of either rum or brandy with sugar and citrus fruit and was technically called an acidulated beverage, thanks to the dose of acidity provided by the fruit juice or rinds.
But shrubs actually go by another name: Drinking vinegar.
We’re not exactly sure why the stuff keeps getting stuck with such unappealing names, because shrubs are seriously good.
As a drinking vinegar, a shrub takes on a slightly different recipe: the mixture of vinegar-based syrup with liquor and either water or seltzer. In this case, the vinegar syrup is sweetened with fruit juice, herbs and spices, making it a perfect player in any number of cocktail recipes.
But its naturally sweet taste and acidic bite doesn’t just help build flavor in a drink – it can help mask flavors just as well.
In fact, that was one of shrubs’ earliest uses, courtesy of some creative English smugglers in the 1680s.
The group was attempting to avoid paying import taxes on any goods – including expensive liquors and sparkling wines – imported from the European continent. And one of their favorite tactics was to sink barrels of spirits off-shore, then come back to fish them out later, in order to skip past the taxman.
There was only one problem: Barrels are leaky, and seawater isn’t exactly a tasty mixer. So the smugglers would whip up some shrubs on the side and infuse their under-the-table liquor with it to help overpower the briny bite with their own blast of sweet and sour.
Still, there are plenty of other – and much more legal – ways to use the cocktail ingredient in modern times.
Shrubs can essentially be considered a fruit liqueur, a mixed drink mixer intended to add several layers of flavor to any cocktail.
Since the final product typically wields a higher concentration of sugar, shrubs preserve well, and are typically made ahead of time, ready and waiting for their drink order to be up.
They’re specifically known in the mixology world for their acidity, making them wonderful additives to apéritifs – a fancy French way of saying “drink before a meal.” And shrub syrup is also commonly used in place of other cocktail ingredients like bitters, which are essential components of famous drinks like the good old Old-Fashioned.
But are shrubs alcoholic? Not necessarily!
Though they often play – and pair well – with boozy concoctions, shrubs in and of themselves are booze-free brews. And they’re nearly as easy to make as they are to drink.
The process is a bit like making a simple syrup – combined with making an infused drink.
To start, you’ll need a few simple ingredients: sugar, vinegar, fruit and spices.
Sugar can be derived from anything from granulated white sugar to honey. And any type of vinegar will also do, though apple cider vinegar and balsamic are among the most popularly used.
For fruit, berries are the most common shrub syrup ingredient, though the fruity flavor can come from nearly endless sources, such as apples, pears, and figs or even cucumber and rhubarb.
And spices are truly the cherry on top, taking the mixture in any flavor direction you want: Anything from basil, cinnamon and fennel to peppercorns, rosemary and thyme have been used to make shrubs.
To combine them, you’ll need two cups each of the first three ingredients, and herbs and spices to taste. (Start small, though: One tablespoon can sometimes be more than enough.)
Combine the sugar and vinegar together on the stove, until the sugar is completely dissolved. Then add the fruit and spices and bring the mixture to a simmer, before letting it cool.
Once it’s stopped steaming, you can strain it through a cheesecloth to remove the debris from the chunkier ingredients. And finally, store the whole thing in a glass jar, in the refrigerator, where it can await all your thirst-quenching needs.
Then pour it out and mix it up with rum, brandy, sparkling wine or simple soda water – and make a bread-free toast to the fruity power of tree-free shrubs!