The Rub On Shrub Retro Vinegar Cocktails
The History and Wonder of Shrubs From Colonial Americans to the McClary Bros.
By Alex Starace
Visit any hip neighborhood in America and you’re bound to find at least one retro cocktail bar serving artisanal Old-Fashioneds and Sidecars. But what’s the next big trend? It may very well be drinking vinegars, also known as “shrubs,” which offer crisp, strong flavors without the artificial sugars and preservatives found in many mixed drinks.
While the trend may be new, the process isn’t. Shrubs in some form or the other have been around since at least Biblical times, according to some, who note that Ruth partook of a vinegar drink while working the fields in Boaz. More commonly, the drink’s origin is believed to be 12th century Persia or 17th century England, though its current trendy form is thoroughly American.
As any early Yankee could tell you, few things beat the taste of fresh-picked fruit. However in the colonial U.S., this truism was felt particularly keenly because without refrigeration and without dense produce distribution networks, fresh fruit was indeed fleeting. Early Americans needed to preserve their extra yield so it would last long after harvest. One of the easiest and healthiest methods was by pouring vinegar over it, allowing it to sit for a few days, then straining it out and eating it later.
As a byproduct of the process, the leftover liquid was actually a flavorful (and relatively mild) infused vinegar that could be mixed with sugar and seltzer water. The result was a refreshing drink similar to what we’d nowadays call a soda. Predictably enough, it didn’t take long before the colonials realized that shrubs could also be mixed with hard spirits such as rum and brandy, to make for a satisfying alcoholic beverage.
In fact, shrubs (which can refer to either the infused vinegar or the finished drink) were commonly consumed in the United States until the early 1900s, when refrigeration and other, easier preservation methods became available. By the 1930s, the local, practical process seemed destined to die out – it got skipped over as the world became more industrialized.
The shrub is cataloged by Slow Foods USA as a “culturally significant food in danger of extinction.” A small family farm, Tait Farm, outside of State College, Pennsylvania, was credited with first reviving the shrub in 1986, when they had a glut of extra raspberries. A friend suggested preserving the fruit using a recipe for an old colonial
beverage called Raspberry Shrub. By 1987, the farm was selling the drink to customers; today Tait Farm Foods has created over 50 varieties of fruit shrubs for purchase.
But the current face of shrubs is none other than Jess Sanchez-McClary, who appeared on the ABC’s season 7 debut of Shark Tank. Her company, McClary Bros., is based in metro Detroit and sources its ingredients locally. “I like to introduce people to foods they didn’t know existed, or that they didn’t understand were so delicious,” Sanchez-McClary said. Her favorites include a batch of fig leaf shrub, where she got the fig leaves from an urban farm in Detroit, and Paw Paw, the only tropical fruit that grows in the upper Midwest, a fruit that can’t be found in grocery stores because it’s so delicate it doesn’t stand up to industrial shipping.
True to Sanchez-McClary’s environmental ideals, very little at McClary Bros. goes to waste, even though the company only sells the shrubs and not the fruit left over. For example, the company’s vinegared apples are used by another local company, Beau Bien, as the base for its chutneys, while some vinegared fruit is used by the Detroit Pop Shop to flavor their Ice Pops. The remaining produce is reused as compost at a local farm.
McClary Bros. is so committed to local, sustainable agriculture that they’re working with a non-profit in New Orleans to open another production facility that focuses on flavors specifically local to Louisiana. “That gives us a new agricultural zone,” said Sanchez-McClary. “There are so many amazing flavors grown there that are so different than what we have in Michigan. It’s really going to add to the variety that we already offer.”
And so the story of making shrubs is really a story of returning to bygone foodways and local roots. Even as Sanchez-McClary pitches venture capitalists on Shark Tank, her story (and the story of shrubs) is the story of doing what our American forebears had done for generations. No matter whether it’s the eighteenth or twenty-first century, making a homegrown beverage that’s delicious will always be in style.