I was recently browsing the shelves of a local specialty market with a friend, when she suddenly picked out a plum-hued glass bottle and proclaimed, “they have shrub!” Because I am quite literal, I looked around for low growing plants to no avail. Fortunately my friend is patient and not easily embarassed, so she quietly explained to me it’s a drink additive and handed me a 4 oz $17 dollar bottle of liquid. Upon closer inspection, what “shrub” seemed to be was a fruit syrup preserved with vinegar. Then it struck me: shrub is sharab, the fruit syrup/drink of the Middle East, used in Medieval Europe as a medicinal elixir, revived in 17th and 18th century England, and popular in America during the Colonial Era. It’s enjoyed renewed status as a cocktail mixer in recent years.
Sharab is the Arabic word for “drink” and is used for any kind of cordial or beverage. Many English words are derived from this, including syrup, sherbet, sorbet, and other words I am probably forgetting. The word (as well as the sharab drink) is commonly misattributed as Farsi or Turkish. As I mentioned in a previous post, the Arabs, having mastered growing, refining, and cooking with sugar, brought sugar to Europe. They developed recipes and cuisine that featured sugar (marzipan, for instance, and now we have macarons), which was commonly blended with fruits for desserts and drinks. Think about Italian sodas. That flavored syrup is likely the descendant of sharab. And since vinegar was invented in the Middle East and has been around practically forever, it has been widely used in Middle Eastern beverages. Sharab may have been concurrently developed in Persia, but what’s clear is that it’s an Arabic word and the drink is certainly not Turkish in origin; the Turks adopted Greek, Persian, and Arabic cuisine in the 13th century during the expansion of the Ottoman Empire.
There are two methods for making sharab–one is cold and the other is hot. I prefer cold, since it preserves the vibrant flavors of the fruits and herbs. The process involves macerating (softening by soaking in liquid) fruit in vinegar, then straining the mixture to extract syrup. While fruit syrups alone are delicious, the addition of vinegar lends a refreshing zing to your beverage that won’t overpower the drink.
Notes ** While most commerical shrubs tend to taste too vinegary, I’ve figured out a simple ratio that yields just the right balance: 2lbs of fruit to 1 cup of vinegar to 1 cup of sugar. You can use virtually any fruit, any herb or spice, and any vinegar. Pair the flavors of the fruit with the notes of the vinegar. For strawberry mint, I played around with the combination of white balsamic and red wine vinegar. For example, were you to make a peach sharab, I would recommend apple cider vinegar and a pinch of cardamom. Or blackberry sharab with fresh basil. I’ve used sharab (or shrub) in sparkling wine, sparkling water, and in a gin cocktail–though I’m pretty sure it’s delicious in any spirit. The recipe here is inexpensive, fast, and produces about 3 cups of syrup**
2 lbs fresh strawberries, quartered
1 handful of fresh mint, maybe 1/2 cup
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup white balsamic vinegar
1. Wash the strawberries, dry them thoroughly, and cut off the tops. Then quarter and place them in a large bowl. Finely chop the mint and add it to the bowl with the strawberries. Pour and mix in sugar.
2. Pour in red wine and balsamic vinegar to bowl with fruit and mint. Mix together and crush the fruit either with your hands or some kitchen implement to allow better release of its juice.
3. Cover and refrigerate overnight before using. You can let the fruit macerate for up to 3 days for more intense flavor.
4. Place a mesh strainer over a jar (in which you will store the syrup) and pour the strawberry mixture into it to strain. You can reserve the leftover fruit solids for muffins or a cake, such as this one from Deb at Smitten Kitchen. The preserved strawberries actually give baked goods a wonderful tartness.
5. Add the shrub, in any amount, to water or spirits. I’ve had the best luck with 1-2 tablespoons of sharab in my drinks, plus a little orange blossom syrup (attar). It will store up to a month in the fridge.