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Simple Shrubs

I’ve been reading Caleb Carr lately, and I blame him for this post.  Maybe blame is the wrong word, but reading The Alienist has certainly shifted my mind into forensic mode.  While not one of my favorite books, Carr’s tome stands out as one of the better modern examples of the Gilded Age detective novel.  In the book, a team comprised of a behavioral scientist, police officers, a newspaper man, and Teddy Roosevelt (then, the commissioner of the NYC police force) set out to solve a series of grisly murders worthy of Jack the Ripper himself.  For the first half of the adventure, they spend the bulk of their time eating at Delmonico’s while assembling a psychological and physical profile of the assailant.  Based on the facts, you see, they begin to make certain logical assumptions about how tall the killer must be, whether he is athletic, has physical deformities, was loved as a child, and so forth.  From these, they paint not only a picture of their prey, but also when and how he will strike again.  I offer all this because, should this same lens have been applied to my own recent activities, any sleuth worthy of his or her deerstalker could have seen this post coming a mile away.

But, for you, gentle reader, I’ll jump to the “Miss Marple in the drawing room with all the suspects” part.  Our last two drinks, the Cunning Linguist and the Cherry Blossom, have left me with an excess of cherries and a taste for acid on my tongue.  Along with the Carr book, I’ve also been finishing up Darcy O’Neil’s Fix the Pumps, a grand history of the soda fountain and all its delights.  One of the lost pleasures of the fountains of yore (well before those 1950s Norman Rockwell pastiches of the glory days) was the Acid Phosphate, a drink which combined flavored syrup with a solution of phosphoric acid neutralized with calcium, magnesium and potassium salts.

Sounds delicious, right?  Just hold on a second – before you go judging, you should know that Coca Cola gets its zing from phosphoric acid.  Before citric acid took over the majority of the soda market (O’Neil tells us that cola drinks don’t work well with citric acid), phosphate-based beverages were all the rage.  I recently tried one at the only thing close to a real soda fountain in these parts, the Fair Oaks Pharmacy in Pasadena, and while I’m sure a drink mixed by Mr. O’Neil or a soda jerk of old would be of a magnitude better, I can attest that the appeal is in the acid.

If I still haven’t convinced you, stop for a minute and consider all the acid you like drinking on a daily basis:  fruit juice, soda, wine, beer.  Think of a hot day and an ice cold Mexican Coke in a 16 oz glass bottle.  You pop the cap, there’s a rush of carbonation, and as you raise the bottle to your lips, millions of tiny little bubbles begin to dance with delight over your palate.  You’re probably salivating at the very thought of it.  Well, that tingle of carbonation on the tongue – it’s really carbonic acid, carried along with the bubbles, attacking your taste buds.  Served in measured doses, we love – even crave – acid.  Order a Whiskey Sour, and you’re asking for a drink that’s 2 parts alcohol, 1 part sweetener, and 1 part acid (recipes vary, but this is a standard mix).   In so much of what we drink, acid plays a vital role in our enjoyment of said beverages.  I’m telling you all this, of course, to a) rationalize how the previous two drinks, plus my recent enjoyment of and pondering about Fix the Pumps, made today’s post inevitable – much like the crimes of Caleb Carr’s serial killer were inevitable, given his circumstance – and b) so that you won’t go “eww” when I tell you that the acid that forms the all-important basis for today’s topic, Shrub drinks, is vinegar.

Vinegar?  Yes.  Just like you put on salads, use to dye Easter eggs, and, if you’re into such things, add to your laundry to keep it free of soapy residue.  If you’re one of our cocktail geek readers, you certainly know all about Shrubs and how we’re hardly the first (or the hundredth) blog to write about them.  Still, it’s a class of drink which you so very rarely see these days.  Which is a shame.  Our first foray, somewhat accidentally I’ll admit, into Shrub territory was last year’s Watermelon Mojito.  I called the drink a Mojito because that’s where I wanted to go with it, but along the way, I veered into the opposing lane and hit a Shrub head-on.  But, let’s start a little further back and take a look at why people started drinking vinegar in the first place.

Along with its sibling terms, sherbet and syrup, the word Shurb, as it applies to a beverage, comes from the Arabic term sharab (“to drink”), and its English usage can be traced back to the early 1700s.  The earliest record I found was from the 1737 British House of Commons, in “an Account of what Duties or Impositions are now payable by any Act or Acts of Assembly, in any of the British Plantations in America…  (it goes on for a bit longer)”.  For New York, duty rates are given for a “Gallon of Rum, Brandy, or other distill’d Liquor or Shrub”.  In the same year, A New Voyage to Georgia by a Young Gentleman was published; it in, the “young gentlemen” recounts that “I took leave of the worthy Family on the 10th of August (1734), when she was so kind as to force me to take a Bottle of Shrub, and several other Things with me.”  What’s particularly interesting in both of these accounts is that “shrub” is mentioned with no explanation – meaning it must have been a relatively common term by the 1730s.

According to the Jane Austen Centre, the first libation-centric Oxford English Dictionary appearance of the word was in 1741 with the definition being “any of various acidulated beverages made from the juice of fruit, sugar, and other ingredients, often including alcohol”.  You’ll notice that there’s no mention of vinegar here.  The OED says acidulated, but that acid could easily have come from the fruit juice.  Most concur that this mixture of sweetened fruit juice and spirit, namely Rum, was indeed the first Shrub.  Essentially, this is Grog, and since Grog is nothing more than a basic punch, we could easily consider Shrub an early punch.  In his book Punch, however, David Wondrich explains that the Shrub is actually a component of a punch – where the sugar meets the juice and, possibly, a little water.  It’s a component, Wondrich tells us, which can be enjoyed on its own, in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic forms.

Vinegar seems to have entered the beverage repertoire under much the same aegis as alcohol in general – medicinally.   Consider the following from The Annual Register or a View of the History, Politicks, and Literature, of the Year 1761:

“It is very useful to the healthiness of ships, to be well provided with a plentiful store of vinegar… Vinegar corrects evil effects from water inclining to putrefaction, and promotes greatly that salutary perspiration, which in hot climates prevents putrid fevers and inflammations… If a little shrub was provided for the use of the seamen after hard fatigue, instead of such other liquors are commonly given to them, by generous and humane commanders, on these occasions, it would have a much better effect, as the vegetable acid in it gives it a superior efficacy against putrefaction.”

In short, vinegar = healthy.  And the sailors (or those prescribing their rations) weren’t the first to think this way.  The Gentlemen’s Magazine, Vol. XVII (1747) not only mentions shrub (“a mixture of lemon juice and rum”), it advises:

“In the case of stinking water, juice of lemon, elixir of vitriol, or vinegar, should be always mix’d with it, which will render it much less unwholesome.  The Roman soldiers drank posca (viz. water and vinegar) for their common drink, and found it very healthy and useful.”

Now we’ve gone back as far as the Romans, but it’s even further back – to Greeks like Hippocrates – that we find some of the earliest references to the healthful benefits of drinking vinegar.  Well before Hippocrates, it should be noted that even Homer, in his Odyssey (8th century B.C.), chronicled a beverage “mixed twenty parts of water to one of wine”.  The chief reason for this is that the wine or vinegar made the water safe to drink – which is most likely why our colonial forefathers started adding it to their rum.

When you consider the warning labels applied to colonial Rum – early nicknames which give us a hint as to its character – such as “kill devil”, “demon rum”, or “rumbullion” – a picture of a fiery, dangerous spirit emerges.   Wayne Curtis opens his And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails in search of a colonial-style Rum Shrub, during which he tells us:

“The old-fashioned rum Jefferson and Adams ordered would have been cloying, greasy, nasty-smelling stuff.  Colonial rum, made with a crude pot still and seat-of-the-pants technology, would have been laden with impurities, and could have been whiffed a block away.”

It wasn’t just the production methods that made the rum somewhat sketchy – it was the lack of any real effort to soften it.   Quality fermentation, masterful distillation, filtration, or barrel aging – all steps towards producing a better, softer product – really weren’t much of a concern.  Our forefathers wanted their Rum now, and the dozens of New England distilleries were only too happy to pump it out for them.  The Shrub, along with several other drinks of the time, would have been concocted to mask the flavor and odoriferous qualities of the rum, but Shrub had the added benefit of potentially negating some of the unwanted health hazards which came along for the ride.

Over the years, both major versions of the Shrub – with vinegar or with fruit juice – have survived in one form or another.  In Jerry Thomas’ Bar-Tender’s Guide (1862), four Shrubs are offered, only one of which includes vinegar.  But, it’s the vinegar version were after today, and the goal is to present you with an easy, delicious Shrub recipe that can be pretty much be whipped up whenever you’re inclined with pretty much whatever you have around (within reason, of course).

First, the basic components of a Shrub – leaving the booze out for now – are an acid base and sugar.  As mentioned, vinegar isn’t negotiable in this post, and for the sugar, we’ll use simple syrup.  The only thing that’s missing is a flavoring for our syrup – typically, but not exclusively, fruit.  Berries were the most popular choice, and of all Shrub variations, the Raspberry Shrub is the one we see most often.  It’s in the raspberry version, exclusively, that Thomas calls for vinegar, and it’s raspberry for which we find a recipe in Eric Felton’s How’s Your Drink.  Felton’s recipe, from the City Tavern in Philadelphia, calls for:

Raspberry Shrub Syrup
1 cup Sugar
1 cups Water
4 cups Raspberries
2 cups White Wine Vinegar

Combine water and sugar in a sauce pan
Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar
Reduce heat, add raspberries and let simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally
Add vinegar, return to a boil for 2 minutes
Remove from heat, strain, and allow to cool
Store in the refrigerator

City Tavern

Since there’s no place in America that serves more Shrubs than City Tavern, which prides itself on its colonial accuracy, I can hardly argue with this recipe (although, according to Wayne Curtis, they do use Captain Morgan as their Rum of choice).  While it’s certainly full of flavor, I found it way too vinegar forward for my taste – a fact which I consider odd since Curtis, in describing the drink he had at City Tavern, said that he was “pleased to discover that not the slightest hint of vinegar comes through.  It’s tart and sprightly, like a dilute fruit punch, and has the thirst-cutting precision of a gin and tonic.”  It seemed as if Curtis and I were drinking too very different beverages.  No, I was after something a little more delicate, with a better fruit-sweet-tart balance.  More importantly, while the above recipe works with fruit which easily gives up its juices, such as berries, I wanted a simple recipe that worked across a plethora of syrups – some too delicate to handle all that boiling.  If a Shrub is, at its most basic, fruit syrup with vinegar, I knew plenty of more gentle methods for coaxing the flavors out of fruit.  So, my plan was to make a basic syrup and add just enough vinegar to it to give it the tart balance I was looking for.  Here you go:

Simple Shrub Syrup Recipe
2 parts Flavored Syrup
1 part Vinegar

Stir to combine

It certainly is simple, isn’t it?  Which flavored syrup and which type of vinegar?  Really, that’s up to you.  For the Cunning Linguist, I just used plain rich simple syrup and rice vinegar, as I wanted to complement the cucumber with something akin to a sunomono dressing.  I’ve also made a wonderful Mint Shrub using rich mint syrup and, again, rice vinegar.  Fruits and herbs are all fair game here, as are wine vinegars, fruit vinegars, balsamic – just go with a combination that sounds tasty to you and be warned that some vinegars pack more punch and are less mixable than others.  What’s great about this method is that – while not historically accurate in proportions or preparation – if you have any type of syrup and vinegar laying around, a Shrub can easily be whipped up on the spot, should the fancy strike.  Now, for the drink recipes:

Virgin Shrub Drink
1 part Shrub Syrup
3-4 parts Club Soda

Add all ingredients to a glass, over ice
Stir gently to combine

With a 4-1 soda to syrup mixture, this is clearly in the realm of a phosphate – light yet layered, and it dances on the tongue.  Cutting back the soda will of course, up the potency of the drink.  Do as you please.

As for the alcohol-laced version, I basically follow Felton’s guidelines:

Alcohol Shrub Drink
1 -2 oz Shrub Mix (to taste)
2 oz Spirit
4 oz Club Soda

Add all ingredients to a glass, over ice
Stir gently to combine

Felton suggests that ginger beer can be used in place of the club soda, and my only caution is that if it’s a spicy ginger beer, it and the vinegar will most likely bring out the worst in each other.  As you’ll notice in our Cunning Linguist, I used just enough ginger beer (I like Reed’s Extra) for flavor and then topped it off with club soda.  In another drink, I muddled the above mint-rice vinegar syrup with some pineapple chunks, added a little vodka, and topped with club soda.  Delicious.  As with the flavor elements and the choice of vinegars, try any spirit that sounds good to you.  Rum and Brandy are traditional, but I’m going to spend the summer experimenting with most of the bottles in our bar.

Like the phosphate or the Whiskey Sour, a good Shrub should set your tongue a-tingle as it goes down.  The balance of acid to flavor and sweetness is key, and when it’s right, you’ll clearly understand why vinegar-based drinks have been with us for thousands of years.  Today, the Shrub is part of the Slow Food movement’s US Ark of Taste, a catalog of over 200 traditional, regional foods in danger of extinction.  I think it’s time we all did our part for America’s – and the world’s – drink heritage and dragged the Shrub out of forced semi-retirement.  Not only is it easy to throw together, it’s an absolutely indispensible quencher for summer imbibing.

Bottled Shrub:  Of course, if you’d rather just buy your Shrub mix, Tait Farms in Pennsylvania is well regarded for producing fine examples of the product.  I have not yet tried any of their bottled Shrubs, but Eric Felton and many others sing their praises, which is enough for me to blindly recommend them.

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