A few years back, food sleuths and cocktail enthusiasts started to experiment with the shrub, a colonial-era fruit preparation that’s making a comeback. The historical term is slippery, referring to any number of fruit-based drinks, but in general, the shrub was a mixture of whole fruit or fruit juice and vinegar or spirits.
You can buy prepared drinking vinegars today. But making them is simple and economical.
We forgot about the potential of vinegars when refrigerators were invented. The revival of a host of fermented foods has helped us rediscover what our ancestors took for granted: Vinegar is a convenient vehicle for preserving fruit, especially if you have a bowl (or an orchard) full of fast-fading stone fruits or an abundance of berries.
Vinegar was also regarded as a remedy. The shrub descended from the medicinal English cordials of the 15th century, a tableau of concoctions created to treat a range of ailments, such as stomach upset, and to aid in overall health and “revival.” Spices, herbs, dried fruit and fruit peels (and sometimes even powdered pearls or gold leaf) were steeped in alcohol or vinegar and doled out medicinally. Later, they became social drinks.
The two uses—preservation and medicine—resulted in the colonial preparations. Shrubs of this era were added to mask the flavor of seawater in tainted booze (barrels were sunk offshore to avoid taxation) and as an ingredient in punch. Vinegar’s natural fizzing quality made the shrub a popular, tart drink —a precursor to the modern soda.
Today, a shrub usually means a “sour tonic beverage,” as Sandor Katz puts it, in which vinegar-based fruit syrup is diluted with plain or carbonated water. The syrup, known itself as a shrub or simply as drinking vinegar, is a mixture of equal parts chopped fruit, vinegar, and sugar. It keeps indefinitely in the refrigerator (though its zing may fade), making it an easy go-to for a summer refresher or cocktail ingredient.