How to make a shrub

What is a shrub?

A shrub is a fruit-based syrup, usually mixed with vinegar, to create a delicious, tangy flavouring for drinks. Many iterations have existed throughout history; in seventeenth-century Britain, the word referred to a fruit liqueur served with rum or brandy, while the popular colonial American drink was closer to today's version, thanks to the addition of vinegar. Shrubs are experiencing somewhat of a resurgence today, thanks to an increased interest in preservation and the swathes of mixologists looking to create unique and delicious cocktails in bars.

Shrubs are a great way to use up a glut of fruits from your allotment or garden. Using very ripe (or even over-ripe) fruit is best, and as long as they are not actually mouldy or rotting, even bruised fruits are fine to use.

How to make a shrub

Making a shrub is simple and once you understand the basic method, it’s easy to get creative with your own flavour combinations. The general rule of thumb is equal parts fruit, sugar and vinegar. After tasting the end product, you can of course add more vinegar or sugar to suit your palate – a naturally sour ingredient such as rhubarb might need a little more sugar, for instance.

The process of making shrubs involves macerating the fruit by covering it with sugar to extract all the juices and flavour – these juices will combine with the sugar to create a syrup. To make the most of the fruit, you need to prepare it accordingly; lightly crush berries such as blackberries or blueberries to break them down; roughly chop larger soft fruits such as strawberries, plums or nectarines and grate harder fruits such as apples or pears. This will give the fruit more surface area for the sugar to access.

When the fruits have been prepared, they are mixed with sugar. Regular caster sugar is usually used, but consider experimenting with brown sugar for tones of caramel – Demerara and apple creates a flavour reminiscent of apple pie, delicious in rum cocktails. The macerating stage can take a couple of days, but when it's ready, the fruit will be sitting in a glorious syrup that is full of flavour. Make sure you keep the fruit: it is intensely flavoured and delicious served on top of ice cream or a cheesecake.

Now choose your vinegar. While a nice fruity apple cider vinegar goes well with any shrub, good quality red wine vinegar will add richness to a red berry version. White or Champagne vinegar complements the floral flavours of peach or apricot. Even balsamic vinegar has a place in the world of shrubs – try the classic combination of strawberries, black pepper and balsamic for a sweet and savoury tipple.

Add your chosen vinegar to the fruit syrup, give it a stir and store in a sterilised bottle. Leave the shrub to mature for three or four days, then have a little taste – the flavour will mellow after time so if you’re not quite happy with it, leave it for a couple more weeks.

Below is a basic shrub recipe that's the perfect starting point for making them at home.

Ingredients

1
Wash the berries and place in a bowl. Lightly crush with a potato masher to start extracting the juices
2
Pour the sugar over and stir. Cover the bowl with cling film and place in the fridge for 48 hours, stirring every 12 hours or so to make sure all of the sugar gets dissolved
3
When ready, the fruit should be swimming in a glistening syrup. Drain the syrup and save the fruit for a dessert
4
Pass the syrup through muslin cloth or a very fine sieve into a sterilised jar or bottle
5
Stir the vinegar into the syrup (ensuring the spoon you use is also sterilised)
6
Cover or seal and leave for at least 72 hours before tasting

Variations and how to use shrubs in cocktails

Now you know how to make a basic shrub, it’s time to get creative. Soft herbs like basil or mint bring an extra sweetness, whereas woodier herbs such as rosemary or thyme provide an earthy savouriness. An array of spices can be used with different fruits – apple and cardamom, cherry and cinnamon, strawberry and peppercorn or rhubarb and star anise to name a few. Even flowers make a lovely addition; add dried rose petals to peaches or lavender to your blueberry shrub. Asian aromatics such as ginger, fresh turmeric, lemongrass or chilli go well with pineapple and are nice and refreshing in a summery cocktail with rum or tequila.

Some vegetables also work well in shrubs. How about a cucumber with pink peppercorns and dill shrub to go in your gin and tonic, or a twist on a Bloody Mary with a tomato, chilli and celery salt variety? If you fancy a slightly healthier option, halve the sugar and add it to grated beetroot with juniper berries and finish with raw apple cider vinegar for an earthy flavour.

With their endless flavour combinations, shrubs can be used in a whole host of cocktails, mocktails, or simply topped up with soda water with a shot (or not) of your favourite tipple.