Posted by Robert Yule, co-author of Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World, published by Rizzoli in 2019
As we shift from winter to spring in Virginia and gardens begin to bloom, my mind turns to shrubs – and not the topiary kind.
I’m thinking of those vinegary fruit libations that are increasingly finding their way into our cups, perhaps spurred on by the popularity of kombucha, amaro, and other bitter drinks.
Shrubs are incredibly versatile things. The no-proof versions are refreshing and healthy options for those who abstain or are practicing a dry winter. And as a mixer, they introduce a welcome tartness to your cocktail, particularly when fresh fruit or citrus is in short supply. Add a shrub mixture to olive oil, and you’ve got a vinaigrette for your salad.
But this vinegar-based trend is nothing new at all. In fact, it represents a great comeback story.
While shrub beverages trace their prominence back to colonial days as a way of preserving and imbibing fruit throughout the year, their origins are much older than America.
Northern Virginia-based author Michael Dietsch traces the story throughout history and geography in his book, “Shrubs: An Old Fashioned Drink for Modern Times.” The word itself has traveled a long way to get to us. “Shrub” comes from the Arabic word sharab, meaning drink, and sometimes referring to wine. Other closely related words include sherbet – which was a popular non-alcoholic drink in Persia and Turkey referring to a mixture of citrus, sugar, and fruit – as well as sorbet, and eventually the word syrup that entered into English.
Beyond a common etymology, these words originally all referred to fruit-based beverages without alcohol that were popular in the Middle East. They made their way West through trade with the Venetians and others, and were adopted by sailors in the sixteenth century, who typically gave it more of a punch by adding spirits. They also became a key ingredient for punches themselves – that precursor to the cocktail – including citrus, sugar, water, and rum or brandy.
In colonial America, the word shrub first referred to the blending of fruit, sugar, and alcohol, which provided an intoxicating treat any time of year. One of the earliest American appearances of the word comes in Virginia from the records of the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe, that group of “gentlemen explorers” who first crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains and entered the Shenandoah Valley.
This trek was no Lewis and Clark expedition – it seemed just as much an extended tailgate party, stopping along the way to consume all sorts of alcoholic beverages, including Irish whiskey, brandy, rum, champagne, punch, and shrub.
We later see these alcoholic shrubs in the recipe books of prominent Americans like Benjamin Franklin and Martha Washington. But at the same time, a related, non-alcoholic drink was gaining popularity in America which used fruit, vinegar, and sugar. Add cold water and it helped slake thirst during hot summer months as a healthy refreshment. One of the most popular versions used raspberries as the main ingredient – the recipe appears in archives and early cookbooks throughout this time period as “Raspberry Vinegar” or “Raspberry Syrup.”
It was a Raspberry Syrup recipe that made its way to Monticello in 1809, after a request from the then newly retired President Thomas Jefferson.
In April, he wrote to his former French steward at the President’s House, Étienne Lemaire, informing him that, “I am constantly in my garden or farm, as exclusively employed out of doors as I was within doors when at Washington, and I find myself infinitely happier in my new mode of life.”
Obviously, Jefferson’s mind was on matters other than politics now, as he sent a request for a “Syrop of Vinegar as a substitute for the Syrop of punch” that Lemaire had once mentioned at the President’s House. A vinegar syrup was a good replacement for the harder-to-get lemons or limes and could be a key ingredient to a nice rum punch that Jefferson was known to serve.
In response, Lemaire sent along 12 bottles of Maille Vinegar Syrup to his appreciative former employer. Maille had its origins in Paris in the 1720s, when Antoine-Claude Maille became a distiller and vinegar-maker, touting vinegar’s medicinal properties. The Maille family went on to supply European royalty and other gourmands like Jefferson with their fine vinegars and condiments throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (And yes, it’s the same company we know today for their fine mustards.)
Lemaire also sent 24 bottles of olive oil or “sallad oil” that Jefferson requested, so it’s quite possible Jefferson was considering using that vinegar syrup to make a nice vinaigrette, but it’s equally likely that he was requesting it for a punch or a fruit shrub.
The Frenchman followed up with directions on how to make a raspberry vinegar syrup – mixing red or white wine vinegar, sugar, and crushed raspberries – so Jefferson could produce it at Monticello without having to import it. We know that Jefferson continued to purchase his vinegar supply locally too – in 1813 he bought 30 gallons from a neighbor.
Lemaire also mentions Edith Fossett and Fanny Hern in his letter, both enslaved women from Monticello who were cooks in the President’s House and trained in French cuisine. They would have the expertise to reproduce this raspberry vinegar syrup, whether for salads, condiments or beverages.
So the big question surrounding shrubs – were they meant for spirits drinkers or for those who abstained? The answer is both. Shrubs and vinegar syrups would have an on-again, off-again relationship with alcohol throughout American history.
Mary Randolph, sister-in-law to Jefferson’s daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph and the author of the famed “Virginia House-wife” cookbook in 1824, lists a recipe for a Cherry Shrub that includes brandy. But in the same section, she lists a Raspberry Vinegar that doesn’t, declaring it “a delicious beverage mixed with iced water.“
Jefferson himself would likely prefer the no-proof drink, but would have the alcoholic version available for guests. Shrubs are listed in cocktail books throughout the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, although increasingly they were served as a Temperance drink. It was one of the first types of known soft drinks, long before Coca-Cola and others entered onto the scene.
As Dietsch describes it, Americans would lose their taste for shrubs with the end of Prohibition and the onset of refrigeration. There were by then plenty of other soft drinks on the market, alcohol was no longer illegal, and we now had an easier way to chill and preserve fruit at home. But he documents how the shrub remained hiding in plain sight for the rest of the twentieth century in the cookbooks of the Pennsylvania Dutch and family recipes throughout the South or places like Colonial Williamsburg.
It was ripe for the taking as modern mixologists were looking to resurrect traditional ingredients. And with the widespread interest in traditional foodways, shrubs are back on the menu as no-proof drinks and cocktails. There’s also been a proliferation of creative craft shrub producers across the country, with Element Shrub out of Northern Virginia as a typical example of the family-run, do-it-yourself ethos of most shrub makers.
The recipes and methods haven’t changed much in more than two hundred years, which makes this a fun exercise in drinking history. Today, there are two generally accepted methods to preparing shrubs that Dietsch walks us through in his book – one fast and one slow.
The fast method takes a few hours and involves heating fruit, sugar, and water on the stove to make a syrup, letting it cool and then combining it with vinegar and refrigerating.
Although the cold method takes longer, Dietsch recommends it for preserving more of the fruit flavors. It involves combining crushed fruit and sugar and letting the mixture sit for a few days, straining out the syrup, and then adding the vinegar.
I’ve included two raspberry shrub recipes here that combine fresh herbs from the garden. The first one is adapted from both “Dining At Monticello,” edited by Southern culinary historian Damon Lee Fowler, and from Dietsch’s “Shrub.” And another comes from Erin Scala, owner of the In Vino Veritas wine shop in Keswick, and sommelier for Charlottesville’s Common House.
So let the bitter shrub be your way of celebrating the much-needed sweetness of spring – cheers!
Raspberry Vinegar with Thyme
- 2 cups fresh raspberries
- 1 cup red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar
- 1 cup sugar
- 8 thyme sprigs
This shrub follows the slower method without the need to turn on the stove. To reproduce the recipe that ended up in Monticello’s account book, you can also make it without the sugar or the thyme. Drizzle it over ice cream, another delicacy often served at the Monticello dining table, or combine it with olive oil to make a nice raspberry vinaigrette that Jefferson would have enjoyed. And don’t discard the fruit after you strain away the syrup. It makes for a wonderfully sweet spread on its own.
- Rinse the raspberries under cold water and drain. Lightly crush them in a glass or stainless steel bowl, add the sugar and stir. Cover and let sit for 2 days in the refrigerator.
- At the same time, add the thyme sprigs to the vinegar in a separate glass bowl, cover and also let sit for 2 days in the refrigerator.
- Remove both mixtures at the proper time. Strain the syrup from the raspberry mixture into a mason jar, and then strain the vinegar mixture into the same jar. Seal and shake, and then return to the refrigerator for several more days before using.
- To make the shrub, add 3-4 tablespoons of the raspberry vinegar for every 8 oz. of club soda. For a delicious cocktail version, add 1.5 -2 oz. of gin or vodka.
Raspberry Shrub with Tarragon
- 1 cup fresh raspberries
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons tarragon
This shrub demonstrates the quicker, hot method, and includes tarragon, which was a favorite culinary herb of Jefferson’s – he often ordered a tarragon vinegar directly from Maille.
- Combine the raspberries, sugar, and a half cup of vinegar in a saucepan. Simmer for about 10 minutes and remove from heat. Add the remaining half cup of vinegar. Cool the mixture and add the tarragon, then let sit for about 20 minutes. Strain mixture into mason jar, seal, and store in refrigerator.
- For a no-proof shrub, pour 2 oz. of the raspberry-tarragon vinegar into an ice-filled glass and add a squeeze of a lemon slice. Top with club soda and garnish with a tarragon leaf. For a cocktail version, add 1.5 oz of brandy or vodka.
Posted by Robert Yule. Yule’s work as a writer and producer has taken him around the world, although he calls Washington, D.C. and Charlottesville, Virginia home. He counts being a tour guide at Monticello as one of the best jobs he’s ever had, and his favorite cocktail is a whiskey sour.