Yo ho ho and a bottle of shrub

One of my favorite things about what I do is the fact that I make (and sell) edible history.  I am a food nerd, and being able to incorporate that into my products is really important.  Unfortunately, I don’t get to talk about the history of shrubs much when I’m at a farmer’s market or craft show.  People only have so much attention to give me, and it’s time better spent putting spoonfuls of shrub in their mouths.  Which I love doing, but is also a shame, because the history of shrubs is wild and has pirates.

And who doesn’t love a good pirate story?

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At the Broadway Farmer’s Market talking holiday cocktails

Lucky for me, I have this blog where I get to talk about whatever I want to talk about.  And today, I want to talk about pirates, punch, rum, and shrubs.  Partly because rum and punch and shrubs are delicious, and partly because I haven’t talked much here about the history of what I do.

Long, long ago, (1720s) in a country far, far away, (England) rum was taxed heavily.  But it was delicious and exotic and people wanted to drink it, so “freelance importers” began to supply tavern owners willing to risk going around the system.  For a time, the system didn’t seem to care all that much, but as the volume of shadily imported rum increased, the tax collectors got wise and started patrolling the coastline looking for these importers.  If the coast guard saw an unregistered or unexpected ship, they would board it and destroy any illegal goods found aboard.

Enterprising, and smart, crews would tie barrels of rum together, wrap them in netting, or tie them to large stones and throw them overboard if they saw the coast guard coming.  Then, when the coast was clear, they would return and fish their goods out of the water and drag them up onto land.  Unfortunately, this salt water bath often lead to rum that had an unpleasant briny taste and a lower potency.  Needing a way to mask the sea water taste of the rum, tavern owners turned to the medicinal cordials of their grandmothers, the citrus fruit that grew in rum producing climates, and a tasty syrup from the Arabian peninsula.

A liqueur, called shrub, started being produced.  Recipes of the time call for lemons and oranges to be peeled, juiced, and then macerated in brandy with a pound or two of sugar, for up to a month.  The resulting syrup was strained and added to the salty rum to make a tasty drink known as grog.  Shrubs became so popular, they were exported to the Colonies and even Ben Franklin had a preferred recipe.

by the 1800s, shrubs made with brandy were no longer seen in America likely owing to changes in import taxes which had previously left shrubs out of the alcohol tax category.  But here in the States, we didn’t have the same kind of distilling infrastructure as the home country, and brandy was an expensive ingredient for what was basically food preservation.  We did, however, have simply loads of hard cider (lager style beers came with German immigrants in the mid-1800s) which turns into apple cider vinegar if it spoils.  These tasty, non-alcoholic syrups, were a great way to preserve the bounty of high summer and provided a satisfying drink for the temperance movement.

Shrubs then, the way we know them now, are an American invention by way of English rum runners.  Of course, the growing cocktail culture wasn’t content to just let the teetotalers have all the delicious shrubs, and they found their way into all kinds of early cocktails and punches.  And punch is where I think shrubs really shine, which is fantastic since it’s holiday party season and punch makes the perfect drink for thirsty crowds.

“One of Sour, Two of Sweet, Three of Strong, Four of Weak.” goes the rhyme for Barbadian Rum Punch and I think it’s still a pretty good basic ratio to follow.  Shrubs take on some of the sweet, sour, and weak places and then you get to fill in the rest with things that make you say “MMMMMMMMM”.  You can also add to the sweetness oleo-saccharum, which means sweet oil, by macerating citrus peels in superfine sugar for an hour or three before making your punch.  Jeffrey Morgenthaler has a neat article on his blog about making this ahead of time using a vacuum sealer which would be a great thing to do if you’re hosting multiple parties or want to start your prep time up to a week before your event.
Holiday Punch template

To 1/2 cup superfine sugar add the peel of 3 lemons, or 2 oranges, or 6 limes, or 1 grapefruit, or a combination of these (you can toss in a few hearty herbs like sage or rosemary but go sparingly). Let rest at least 1 hour, and up to overnight, stirring occasionally. Or, put all ingredients into a vacuum seal bag and let sit out 4-6 hours and then refrigerate for future use. Should keep up to 1 week.

In at least a 2 quart vessel combine the oleo-saccharum, 8 ounces shrub, the juice from the citrus (totaling around 1/2 a cup), 2 cups of your preferred liquor or liquors, and 2-3 cups of “weak” aka low-proof or non-alcoholic ingredients.  Serve right away, over lots of ice.  Or, mix the sugar, shrub, juice and liquor together and put it in the fridge to chill 2-4 hours.  Then add the weak ingredients, which often have bubbles, and ice right before serving.

Some fun combinations to try:

  • Mulled Cranberry shrub, oranges, rye whiskey, and a blend of seltzer and sparkling wine
  • Pear Ginger shrub, lemons, 2-3 sprigs rosemary, gin, and seltzer
  • Apricot Rosemary shrub, limes, 2 parts rhum agricol and 1 part Angostura 1919 Rum, and ginger beer
  • Vanilla Pear shrub, lemons, scotch whisky, aromatic bitters, and seltzer
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