Shrub: a history

Words by: Tim Oakley, with an afterword by Alistair Reynolds

16:01 GMT // 9 Aug 2011

What exactly is shrub? We're talking about drinks, not bushes, obviously. The two main types of shrub are fruit preserves made with vinegar, usually mixed with soda, and a fruit cordial or liqueur made with alcohol, but which is not in itself distilled. This article focuses on the latter type. We asked bartender Tim Oakley to do the research.

Shrub comes from the Arabic word 'sharaba', which means 'to drink'. The word is also used for syrup and sherbet. The first mention of the word 'shrub' in the English Dictionary was in 1747, which defined it as "any of various acidulated beverages made from the juice of fruit, sugar, and other ingredients often alcohol".

Shrubs in the English sense are a form of cordial - which themselves developed in England from the late 15th century. They became alcoholic medicines used to revitalise the heart, body and spirit and to cure disease.

Shrub's popularity and growth throughout England was mainly due to the rise in smuggling. Here's a brief history of it. Smuggling developed in England in the 1680s when there were high taxes on luxury imported goods such as tea, brandy, rum and genever. Brandy purchased in Europe was a firth the price in the UK. Plus ça change. Cornwall and Devon were particularly suited to smuggling due to their long expanses of rocky, virtually uninhabited, coast. Only a few revenue men were on patrol.

Initially, smuggling took place fairly openly with cargoes landing directly on shore. This was made possible by the involvement of all sections of the community, from the local landowner downwards. This ranged from the gentry turning a blind eye, to full-scale involvement. It is estimated that each year 1780s brandy alone was smuggled at the rate of six bottles per head.

Geneva was a staple part of the smuggling trade in Cornwall. On February 10th 1805 the H.M. Customs seized a thousand gallons of brandy, rum and geneva from local smugglers at Sennen, one mile northeast of Land's End. The smugglers put up a fight and shots were fired. Sennen man John George was captured, tried and sentenced to be hung for the offence at the Old Bailey on the 24th of April.

The case was symptomatic of the excise men becoming more organised and proactive. Smuggled goods had to be dropped off in remote coves, and picked up again when the coast was clear. Tunnels and passages were dug out of the rocks to expedite movement.

The barrels of "duty-free" spirits were often "stored" by sinking them just offshore when the excise men were too active. The barrels could then be recovered when, quite literally, the coast was clear. Barrels were also transported to the shore by making rafts out of the barrels and floating them in on the surf. Unfortunately, this could lead to the rum being fouled with sea water. Of course, this was no good reason not to drink it.

It's no coincidence that this is exactly where shrub fits in to all this smuggling. While it was used mainly as an accompaniment to smuggled rums and genevers, it was most likely used to mask the briny, salty flavour of spirits spoiled by contact with saltwater and the flavour of poor quality distilled spirits - just as the development of the cocktail during Prohibition. The addition of shrub to rum closely links it to the histories and development of 'grog' and 'bumbo'.

So what was this early shrub made of? English Housewifery by Elizabeth Moxon, published in 1743, contains the following:

To Make Orange Shrub.
"Take Seville Oranges when they are full ripe, to three dozen oranges put half a dozen of large lemons, pare them very thin, the thinner the better, squeeze the lemons and oranges together, strain the juice thro' a hair sieve, to a quart of the juice put a pound and a quarter of sugar; about three dozen oranges (if they be good) will make a quart of juice, to every quart of juice put a gallon of brandy, put it into a barrel with an open bung with all the chippings of your oranges, and bung it up close; when it is fine, bottle it. This is a pleasant dram, and ready for punch all the year."

Punctuation aside, it's a useful indication of what shrub was like before 1800 - in fact, I struggled to find any other shrub recipes pre-1800. However, I stumbled across this recipe by Benjamin Franklin - yes, the Founding Father himself, courtesy of the American Philosophical Society.

Orange Shrub
"To a Gallon of Rum two Quarts of Orange Juice and two pound of Sugar - dissolve the Sugar in the Juice before you mix it with the Rum - put all together in a Cask & shake it well-let it stand 3- or 4-Weeks & it will be very fine & fit for Bottling when you have Bottled off the fine pass the thick thro' a Philtring paper put into a Funnel-that not a drop may be lost. To obtain the flavour of the Orange Peel paire a few Oranges & put it in Rum for twelve hours-& put that Rum into the Cask with the other - For Punch thought better without the Peel."

It is important that we do not get confused: both Shrubs and punches contain similar ingredients and share a similar evolutionary development, but they are not the same. As we can see by Franklin's recipe above it is easy to confuse the two. Punch has an 'immediacy' about it - it is designed to be served just after it has been made, and tends to be associated with celebration and, well, partying. Shrubs, by contrast, evolved from a 'medicinal' basis and tend to be stored for use over time - like an early pre-mix - and thus contain a much higher concentration of flavour and sugar. They have also, over time, become an ingredient in punches as we can see in the 'Oxford Punch' recipe below.

The making of shrub was seemingly rife in America at this time too - it was a great way of getting around spirits taxes. In fact, in New York in 1728 an act was passed declaring shrub liable to the same duties as distilled spirits.

Continuing with this side of the Atlantic, there's this from John Davies' 1808 publication, The Innkeeper and Butler's Guide, or, a Directory in the Making and Managing of British Wines.

Shrub Cordial
"Take two quarts of brandy and put into a large bottle and put into that the juice of five lemons, the peels of two lemons plus half a nutmeg: Stop it up and let it stand for three days and then add to it, three pints of white wine, a pound and a half of sugar: mix it and strain it twice through a flannel and bottle it up. 'Tis a pretty wine and a cordial. For each tot of rum add a double tot of shrub. At the end of the evening everyone was cordial!"

His recipe for Orange Shrub had even more largesse.

Orange Shrub
"Break one hundred pounds of loaf sugar into small pieces, put it into twenty gallons of water, boil it till the sugar is melted, skim it well and put into a tub to cool: when cold, put it into a cask, with thirty gallons of good Jamaica rum, and fifteen gallons of orange juice [mind to strain all the seeds out of the juice] mix them well together; then beat up the whites of six eggs very well, stir them well in, let it stand a week to fine, and then draw it off for use".

There are also good recipes in Peter Jonas Distiller's Guide: Comprehending the whole art of distilling, from 1818 - incidentally available on free dowload from Google books. You may have to do some scaling back, with this recipe for for making between 120 and 150 gallons. "Take sixty five or seventy gallons of Rum, one in eight; from seven to eight gallons of lemon juice; from six to seven gallons of orange juice; both fresh expressed from the fruit; orange wine, thirty gallons; two pounds of the rind of fresh lemon peel; and one pound of the rind of fresh orange peel; both pared off as thin as it can be done, and previously steeped for a few days in the rum; one hundred pounds of loaf sugar. Fill up the cask of 120 gallons, or 130 gallons,with fair water; rouse them well together; if not sweet enoughn sweeten to your palate; if too sweet add more lemon juice. Dissolve your sugar in part of the water used for making up your shrub, let it stand till fine set up on end, with a cock near the bottom."

These Orange and Citrus Shrubs were definitely the most popular way of making shrub in England, but that's not to say you cannot make shrub with other fruits, as Jerry Thomas demonstrated in his Bartenders Guide from 1862.

Currant Shrub
"One pint of sugar. One pint of strained currant juice.
Boil it gently for eight to ten minutes; skimming it well; take it off and, when lukewarm, add half a gill of brandy to every pint of shrub. Bottle tight."

Most recipes for drinking shrub in the 1800s call for two parts shrub to one part brandy or rum. Homemade shrub was sold in most public houses throughout England in the 17th and 18th centuries alongside Lovage and Peppermint cordials. It pops up in Convivial Dickens: Drinks of Dickens and His Times, noted as "a drink made with brandy, white wine, citrus juice and sugar and left to collect its thoughts in the cellar".

Shrub fell out of fashion in the late 1800s and was then most commonly drunk at Christmas, mixed with raisins, honey, lemon, sherry, rum and other spirits - also known as nectar. The most obvious reason for shrub's decline was the craze for gin that meant the cost of shrub would have been much greater than that of gin at the time.

Although most written usage of shrub in England focuses on using it either on its own or in a simple mix of rum and brandy, shrub was a vital ingredient in punches due to its pre-mixed infusion adding instant flavour to the punch. This from Richard Cook's Oxford Nightcaps, published in 1835.

Oxford Punch
"Extract the juice from the rind of three lemons, by rubbing loaf sugar on it. The peeling of two Seville oranges and two lemons, cut extremely thin. The juice of four Seville oranges and ten lemons. Six glasses of calves-feet jelly in a liquid state. The above to be put into a jug, and stirred well together. Pour two quarts of boiling water on the mixture, cover the jug closely, and place it near the fire for a quarter of an hour. Then strain the liquid through a sieve into a punch bowl or jug, sweeten it with a bottle of capillaire, and add half a pint of white wine, a pint of French brandy, a pint of Jamaica rum, and a bottle of orange shrub; the mixture to be stirred as the spirits are poured in. If not sufficiently sweet, add loaf sugar gradually in small quantities, or a spoonful or two of capillaire. To be served up either hot or cold"

Simplified Shrub Recipes

Shrubs are still served in most Cornish pubs, normally with Navy Rums such as Walter Hicks 125 proof or Pusser's: the higher the proof cuts through the sweetness of shrub. Here's my own take on the traditional orange and citrus recipes:
Orange Shrub
Makes approx 2 x 700ml bottles
1½ bottles of Gold Rum (preferably Bajan 40% abv.)
100ml Wray & Nephew
400g Caster Sugar
5 large Oranges
300ml Fresh orange juice
2 Lemons
1 Cinnamon stick
Grated nutmeg

To the rum, add the juice and rind from the oranges, just the rind of the lemons and the cinnamon, and store for around three days. Remove cinnamon, add sugar and the Wray & Nephew, then bottle. Leave for at least a week in a cool place, shaking occasionally to dissolve all the sugar.

Shrubbed Up
50ml Islay Whisky {the salty notes work really well with the shrub}
25ml Orange Shrub
10 Mint leaves
Gently muddle mint in a Julep tin add shrub and whisky and churn over crushed ice. Garnish with Mint and orange twist.

Brandy Shrub
1 Bottle of VS Cognac
250g Sugar
100ml Amontillado Sherry
3 Lemons
Mix the lemon juice, lemon rind, and Cognac and store in a covered container for three days. Add the sugar and the sherry, strain the mixture and bottle it. Store in a cool place for at least a week, shaking occasionally.

Brandy Shrub Cup
50ml Brandy Shrub
150ml Ginger Ale
5ml fresh Lemon juice
Fresh berries
Cucumber slices
Lemon wedges
Build in Collins glass over cubed ice. Garnish with a mint sprig.

Tim Oakley is a bartender from Somerset (next door to the shrub centrals of Cornwall and Devon) who runs his own drinks consultancy, Instilled Libations

Pollen Street Social Shrub


By Alistair Reynolds

We noticed some intriguing compounds gently infusing in crystal decanters on the bar-top at Mayfair's Pollen Street Social, and they turned out to be homemade shrubs. We asked bar manager Alistair Reynolds, formerly of Nottingham's Brass Monkey and Bristol's Hausbar, to talk us through what the team had created and how they serve them.

With the weather getting slightly better we wanted to find something to enjoy during the brief summery spell. Shrubs, we thought, may well be the answer. After some research and a lot of peeling, chopping and squeezing we have created a rum shrub and a gin shrub.

My research began with my 'go-to' book of choice for these more forgotten drinks, Charles Baker's The Gentleman's Companion Volume II: Being an Exotic Drinking Book or, Around the World with Jigger Beaker, and Flask; Jigger, Beaker and Glass. I found two shrubs referenced: Temperance Shrub and Bermuda (West Indian Style) Shrub. Both involved soaking fruit in water, adding a lot of sugar and boiling the mixture to extract the juices.

For a more visual effect, we decided to macerate the fruit in the alcohol with unrefined sugar on the bar-top. We started by macerating grapefruits, lemons and limes in a blend of Appleton V/X and Pampero rums, carefully monitoring it for a month. The result was a fantastic citrus-smelling rum, though the taste was slightly too bitter. However, we found that a splash of pineapple balanced out the bitterness.

We then needed to find a way of adding sugar as this would be true to most if not every shrub. Velvet Falernum was the perfect answer as it is a sugar cane-based liqueur, high in sugar and the clove notes complemented the bitter notes we were picking up from the rum blend. Here's how we serve it:

Social Rum Shrub
Glass: Julep tin
Garnish: Mint sprig and lemon and pink grapefruit slices
Method: Build on crushed ice
50ml Rum Shrub
20ml Velvet Falernum
15ml Pineapple juice
10ml Lime juice
2 dashes Absinthe

Our second attempt took us to gin, one of my favourite spirits and very popular here at Pollen Street Social. To overcome the bitterness we experienced with our rum shrub, we decided to pick sweeter fruits - apricots, plums, strawberries and sloe berries - macerating them with unrefined sugar in Tanqueray Export gin. The result was perfect: the dryness and citrus notes of the gin cutting through the sweet flavours offered by the fruits. The result was so good it is perfect over ice with a slice of lemon. We added Somerset cider brandy for a dry apple tang, taking our cue from the fact that vinegar is often seen in historical references to non-alcoholic shrubs, with cider vinegar frequently chosen. Here's our Sicilian Shrub.

Sicilian Shrub
Glass: Martini
Garnish: Angostura Bitters on foam
Method: Shaken with ice and double strained into a chilled cocktail glass.
40ml Gin Shrub
20ml Averna
15ml Egg white
10ml Lemon juice
Comment: the Averna adds a wonderful herbal note leading into rich orange flavours.





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