Preservation Cocktails: DIY Winter Shrubs

Born from the ancient Muslim sherbet, shrubs have come back into vogue as not only a cocktail ingredient, but a way to preserve produce through the entirety of a season. Michael Dietsch offers a few winter recipes built to last through the rough months ahead.

Shrubs take two forms. The earliest version was similar to a punch—a mix of citrus juice, sugar and either rum or brandy—but more concentrated and born to be mixed up for later use rather than immediate consumption.

The shrub we know today is a sweetened, vinegar-based syrup, made from fruit or vegetable juice, which is commonly used as an ingredient in cocktails or non-alcoholic drinks. It, too, takes the form of a concentrated syrup meant to be stored.

Both forms of the shrub descended from sherbet—and not the frozen dessert we think of today, but a beverage with roots in Persia, Turkey and other Muslim countries that dates back more than 1,000 years. In the Muslim world, sherbet was, and still is, a blend of fruit juice—often lemon or citron juice, usually either powdered or made into syrup—blended with spices, herbs, rose petals, nuts or other flavorings, and then mixed with water, ice or snow and served in a bowl.

In 1813, after visiting Istanbul, the poet Byron wrote, “Give me a sun, I care not how hot, and sherbet, I care not how cool, and my Heaven is as easily made as your Persian’s.”

Though observant Muslims would never have spiked sherbet with booze, the practice became common in Western Europe in the 1700s, as drinkers learned that it could help mask the favors of primitive rum and brandy. As the drink gained traction around the world through mercantile trade, it became known by a number of different names, like “shorb,” “shurb” and, eventually, “shrub.”

To everyone, except the Pennsylvania Dutch—who continued making shrubs throughout the 1900s—the shrub remained something of an obscurity in the drinks world. In fact, it wasn’t until 2006, when Eric Felten wrote about shrubs in the Wall Street Journal, that bartenders began experimenting with them. Nearly a decade later, they’re a cocktail menu staple.

Most early shrubs were lemon-based, simply because many early sherbets were also lemon-based: Take the juice or powdered juice of several lemons, mix that with sugar, and use it to dose up a bunch of rum or brandy.It’s this version of the shrub that first made waves in Colonial America around the dawn of the 18th century.

But fresh citrus was expensive to import, and it didn’t grow well in most of the colonies. And without citrus, many food and drink products were in need of a preservative agent to replace fresh juice. Enter vinegar.

While the vinegar-based shrub eventually stole the spotlight from its citrus-based predecessor during the 1700s, it wasn’t until about the 1830s that the classic combination of sugar, vinegar and water began to bear the shrub name (for decades it was known simply as “fruit vinegar”). It grew in popularity through most of the 19th century as a way to preserve fruit juice, but the advent of refrigeration and the rise of the commercial soft drink put an end to shrub’s popularity in the early years of the 20th century.

To everyone, except the Pennsylvania Dutch—who continued making shrubs throughout the 1900s—the shrub remained something of an obscurity in the drinks world. In fact, it wasn’t until 2006, when Eric Felten wrote about shrubs in the Wall Street Journal, that bartenders began experimenting with them. Nearly a decade later, they’re a cocktail menu staple.  

For the modern bartender, shrubs offer versatility and seasonality, reflecting what’s currently available at local markets or as a less perishable medium to highlight regional produce.

For example, at Houston’s Anvil, Terry Williams uses local Satsuma oranges—which begin to ripen in late fall—and combines them with pomegranate for a winter shrub that he mixes with gin, grapefruit juice, absinthe and Lambrusco in his Ford Prefect cocktail. Beth Dixson, bar manager at Pasture, in Richmond, Virginia, goes the savory route, combining a housemade beet and juniper shrub with reposado tequila, Bittermens orange cream citrate, Dolin rouge and a dash of salt in her Holston Valley cocktail.

For the home bartender, shrubs are a great way to extend the bounty of your garden or farmer’s market. They can be savory or sweet; herbal or spicy; fruity or vegetal. Think of them as the acidic component of a drink—the element that creates high notes generally reserved for fresh citrus. It can also be thought of as a seasoner and used in small doses to give basic drinks like the Gin Sour or Sherry Cobbler an extra layer of intrigue. Or, if you’re entertaining teetotalers, mix it with seltzer a for a sweet and sour aperitif minus the alcohol.

As we head into the barren months ahead, here are a couple winter shrubs—simple concoctions using seasonal produce—and a cocktail recipe to help get you through.