Thursday, November 18, 2010

Drinks for the Season: Cranberry Shrub

With Fall upon us, and the holidays close at hand, I figured it was about time to start up a thread on seasonal drinks.  Rather than start off with the easier one-offs like a hot tody, I decided I'd start out with some drinks that require a bit more time and forethought.  Conveniently enough, I have some ongoing projects that fit the bill perfectly, the first of which utilizes the Thanksgiving day classic, the cranberry.

My tale of cranberry begins thus.  Some weeks back, I attended a friend's wedding, from which my roommate's and I inherited some centerpieces.  One of these pieces was an arrangement filled with cranberries.  Not wanting them to go to waste, I brain stormed some ideas of how to use them.  My first idea was cranberry bitters (more on that at a later date).  Fast forward a bit, and some friends and I were at the Hungry Mother in Cambridge enjoying some cocktails.  One cocktail on their menu (the No. 64 I believe?) was particularly intriguing because its ingredients included blueberry shrub (also intriguing, it came in two variations; one using a fill of proseco, and the other beer).  Voila!  New plan:  cranberry shrub.

For those unacquainted with a "shrub" in the context of beverages and cocktails, I will first tell you that if you scour the Internet for information about them (as I of course did), the information on what constitutes a shrub and how they are made varies a bit.  This is not overly surprising, given that sources generally peg the origin of shrubs in the pre-colonial era, with ebbs and flows of popularity since then.  Here is what I've been able to gleam from my research, as well as the recipe that I went with for making my own shrub (and what I would change next time around).

Shrubs are fruit-based syrups used for hundreds of years in drinks both alcoholic and non-alcoholic.  One source I found identified a rise in popularity of shrubs in non-alcoholic beverages as part of the Temperance movement.  Some sources describe shrubs as primarily involving the elements of fruit, sugar, and, most unconventionally to the modern palate, vinegar.  This is where things begin to get dicey.  If you go back to Jerry Thomas' seminal 1862 work, How to Mix Drinks, sure enough you will find a recipe for Rasberry Shrub as follows:
Raspberry Shrub
1 quart of vinegar.
8 quarts of ripe raspberries.
After standing a day, strain it, adding to each pint a pound of sugar, and skim it clear, while boiling about half an hour. Put a wine-glass of brandy to each pint of the shrub, when cool. Two spoonfuls of this mixed with a tumbler of water, is an excellent drink in warm weather, Kid in fevers.

Thomas also has several other recipes listed in his book described as "Shrubs" including Cherry Shrub and Currant Shrub, which make no mention of vinegar.  Instead, the basic pattern includesfruit, brandy (or rum), and sometimes sugar.  The alleged etymology of "Shrub" doesn't lend much clarification.  The origin of the word shrub in this context is said to be related to the arabic sharba, meaning syrup.  In any event, I was gunning for a variation on Thomas' raspberry shrub recipe this time around because I think the vinegar element makes it a more interesting combination.  Even within this particular genre of shrub recipes, there were some further choices to be made.  Some recipes call for a hot mixture of ingredients; some call for a cold mix with additional aging; some add spices and additional elements; some say to age the cranberries with sugar for a day as a first step, while others say to age the cranberries with the vinegar. 

Picking and choosing among the compositions and preparation techniques out there, I settled on the following recipe for my cranberry shrub.  I went with a very basic recipe, involving a cold mix technique based on the technique attributed to Neyah White.

Cranberry Shrub
2 cups cranberries
2 cups sugar
2 cups apple cider vinegar (I used an unfiltered organic)
- Muddle/bruise cranberries and (before or after), place in a large mason jar
- Add sugar and blend into a syrup
- Let sit for 24-48 hours
- Combine vinegar into syrup mix, stirring
- Let sit for 10 days in a cold place, shaking periodically to make sure sugar is entirely dissolved
- Strain, filter, and bottle

Overall, I think this recipe produced an intriguing product.   One improvement I would make is to bring out the cranberry taste more, as I find that the it gets lost a little to the vinegar. I think this could be achieved by upping the cranberry quotient a bit to 3, or even 4 cups and blending or crushing the cranberries more thoroughly.  Also, playing with the type of vinegar used might make for some nice variations - perhaps a white wine vinegar instead of the cider?

Now, with newly minted shrub in hand, the next question is...what to do with it?
What makes the fruit-sugar-vinegar shrub formulation interesting in a drink is the way the acidity plays with the sweetness in the shrub itself, and in sweet elements with which it is combined.  The Hungry Mother's route of using Prosecco thus looks like a natural pairing.  One mix I tried was the following, French 75 like drink:
3/4 oz cranberry shrub
1 oz gin (Plymouth)
Prosecco (approx 4 oz)

Shake cranberry shrub and gin with ice; pour into wine glass, top with Prosecco.
Other ideas that I'd like to try:
cranberry shrub + ginger ale
cranberry shrub + pumpkin ale!  In particular, I'd like to see how the shrub would play with the taste of Southern Tier's Imperial Pumpking.  The Pumpking has a distinctive pumpkin pie taste to it that would make for an interesting blend with the cranberry (very Thanksgiving).

The acidity from the vinegar in the shrub balances sweetness very well, thus any pairing with a sweet element has potential.

Here are some further sources for shrubs info of various kinds, which also include some further cocktail recipes involving shrubs as well:
Jaimie Boudreau's spritsandcocktails blog on Berry Shrub
Shaken, Not Stirred Blog
Cocktail Virgin Slut notes about shrubs and blueberry shrub
Note:  There's also at least one commercially available form of shrub from Tait Farms that is also sold at the Boston Shaker, for those in the Boston area.


  1. I want to try the one with prosecco and the very thanksgiving one. I also want to try them right now, instead of working.

  2. If you just don't have the time to devote, Shrubs can also be purchased at in Portland Oregon. Ginger, raspberry, lemon, grapefruit, strawberry, blackberry, blueberry and cherry, all from seasonal fruit.

  3. Cranberries are high acid fruits so you might need as much vinegar to do the job or you might need to add more sugar to get the right balance (as compared to raspberry). Acid is necessary for two reasons -- it gives the crispness akin to a sweetened lemon drink and it preserves the fruit (shrubs were a way of keeping the bounty long after the harvest in the days before refrigeration). Another popular acid is verjus -- the juice from green, unripe grapes.

  4. Thanks frederic, that's good to know. I'm wondering if maybe the key for me would be a different vinegar/acid. I don't mind the level of acidity in what I was able to produce, and it does mix very well with sweet elements. What I feel like I am missing is actually a bit more of the tartness from the cranberry. I'll just have to experiment!