A Short History of Shrub

Getting to know cordial’s under-appreciated vinegary sibling

What do sorbet, sherbet, and syrup have in common? They are all words that come to use from the old Arabic ‘sarab’ (’drink’) via medieval Latin. One more such word is shrub.

What is shrub, you ask?

Shrub is a vinegar-based, cordial-like fruit syrup that is often mixed with sparkling water or spirits to create a refreshing — or enlivening — drink. It actually originated as a way of preserving perishable fruit, like berries, for a bit longer.

There is a long history of drinks made with vinegar: really, as long as the history of wine. However, shrub was originally served not just as a drink, but also over crushed ice. This version, something like a medieval snow cone, became very popular in early modern Italy… and the sorbet was born. Who knew we owed gelato to vinegar!

Still, ‘shrub’ continued to refer primarily to a (sour) drink. Many different versions of shrub have been drunk across history. For example, the 18th-century English navy gave us ‘rum and shrub’: a simple, scurvy-preventing mixture of rum and lemon juice. In the early 19th-century etching at the head of this article, the middle woman "find[s] [her]self always so agreeable after a glass of shrub."

Shrub was very popular with the English colonists and America, who — often lacking access to citrus — began to replace the citrus with vinegar again. During prohibition, the rum element was dropped, and soon enough, the rise of Coca Cola and other soft drinks saw shrub fall from favour.

Today, while refreshing 'sharbat' drinks based on fruit or flower petals syrups are still drunk across the Middle East and South Asia, shrub is enjoying a bit of a renaissance as a cocktail ingredient and soft drink in the Anglosphere. No wonder: the vinegar base perfectly balances the sugar while enhancing the tartness of the fruit. It’s cordial for grown-ups!

In my next post, I’ll be bringing you a recipe for using up some of those lovely fruits dotting the hedgerows right now in your very own shrub. Happy shrubbing!

This article is based in part on the excellent video ‘Raspberry Shrub – How to Drink Vinegar’ by Tasting History’s Max Miller. You can watch it on YouTube here.

— Beatrix Swanson

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