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Shrubs: The Easy, Long-Forgotten Health Drink American Colonists Loved

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Shrubs: The Easy, Long-Forgotten Health Drink American Colonists Loved

Certain food trends bring you back to the phrase, “Everything old is new again.” Bee keeping, backyard chickens, whole foods and local foods have become downright trendy.

Of course, those who are homesteaders and “do-it-yourselfers” know that many of the old ways are the best ways.

Shrubs or vinegar-based fruit juices are no exception. While today they pepper gourmet magazines and food websites, they were alluded to in the Bible, have roots in many places across the world, and were commonly found in American homes during the colonial times. They were also a common method of preserving foods prior to refrigeration, making them a common and popular choice of drink in early America.

Shrubs or switchels, as they are also called, are vinegar-based fruit juices. Very simply, they are a mixture of fruit, vinegar and sugar that is consumed both plain, and sometimes used as a base for a cocktail. From China to England, they have a history in many cultures spanning the globe.

They truly came into their own in America with the early colonists. There are some very interesting places in history where shrubs show up in American history. A recipe for shrubs is chronicled in Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin’s papers, according to the American Philosophical Society. During the War of 1812, Captain James Dacres, an English Naval captain, battled the American ship USS Constitution. Historians discovered that as the battle raged on, he fantasized about serving Americans this drink when they surrendered. Like Coca-Cola today, shrubs were seen as the epitome of American drinks.  He apparently dreamed about rubbing the Americans’ noses in their favorite drink, as they lost the battle to Britain. However, as history played out, Americans sank his ship.

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Shrubs also played a role in the American temperance movement, as they were lauded (at least the non-alcoholic version) as a refreshing alternative to an alcoholic drink.

During this time period, it was also seen as somewhat of a preventative medicinal concoction.  Today, we again recognize the benefits of vinegar, particularly apple cider vinegar, for a variety of ailments. Historically, sailors used it to prevent sickness at sea.

Of course, they would not have been consumed had Americans and folks around the world not preserved fruit this way as a means of storage. This was also a primary function of making shrubs prior to refrigeration. The “Canning Across America” website offers a great recipe for canning strawberry shrubs:

Spiced Pickled Strawberries

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Adapted from The Complete Book of Pickling, by Jennifer MacKenzie


  • 6 pints strawberries, hulled (preferably on the smaller side and just a touch under-ripe)
  • 3 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt or 3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 2 cups cider vinegar

Puncture strawberries with fork tines and cut any large ones in half.

Combine remaining ingredients together in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring until sugar and salt are dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Pour over prepared berries.

Cover the berries and let stand at a cool room temperature for at least six hours or overnight.
Prepare water bath canner, jars and lids.

Re-heat berries, gently stirring occasionally until strawberries are heated through but still hold their shape.

Gently spoon strawberries and hot pickling liquid into hot jars, leaving ½ inch head space.  Remove air bubbles and adjust head space as necessary. Wipe rim and place hot lid on jar, screwing band down until fingertip-tight.

Place jars in canner and return to a boil. Process for 10 minutes.

Turn off heat, remove canner lid and let jars stand in hot water for an additional 5 minutes.

Transfer jars to a towel-lined surface or a cooling rack and let stand undisturbed until completely cool, about 24 hours. Check lids and refrigerate any jars that are not sealed.

Makes approximately 6 pints.

Use Up What You Put Up: Strawberry Shrub

  • 2-3 tablespoons pickled strawberry syrup (and whole fruit if you like)
  • 12 ounces sparkling water or club soda

Stir together in a tall glass, with or without ice, and enjoy. Add more syrup to taste.

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You do not have to can shrubs. You can make them for immediate consumption and refrigerate them. The Ultimate History Project website offers a great recipe for non-canned shrubs.

Recipe for Pomegranate Shrub

3-4 large pomegranates
1 3/4 cups of sugar
1 cup cider vinegar

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1.  Line a colander with cheesecloth and place it over a clean glass (or other non-reactive) bowl. Roll the pomegranates on the counter to loosen the seeds, then cut them into quarters. Invert the quarter and pop the seeds out into the colander.

2. Pick out any of the white pith that fell into the seeds, as it will lend a bitter note to the finished product if you don’t. Pull the ends of the cheesecloth and squeeze the pomegranate seeds as hard as you can. Keep squeezing and twisting until you have only the inner kernels left in the cloth.  Throw that away. You should have about two cups of liquid.

3. Mix the liquid with the sugar (use more if you like it sweeter). Stir to try to dissolve as much of the sugar as possible.

4. Add the vinegar to the mixture, pour the whole into a clean bottle, cap it securely and shake it.  Place it in the refrigerator and let it sit for 2 weeks. Shake it whenever you think of it.

5. Finally, uncork it and give it a sniff. It will smell very vinegary. Mix a small amount with seltzer water and taste it.  It will seem extremely sour to the modern palate but mixed with seltzer or vodka in the right proportions, it is indeed, very refreshing. If you find it too sour, simply add more sugar and let it sit for another day.

Note: To make this recipe with any other fruit, just chop up the fruit very coarsely, mix it with the sugar and let the mixture sit on the counter or in the fridge for several hours until the juice oozes out of the fruit. (Blemished fruit is great for this!). Then, strain the fruit through a sieve and mix the resulting sugary juice with the vinegar. Some people cook the fruit for a time with the sugar to produce the syrup. Both methods work perfectly well.

Like other canned and preserved foods, there is a deeper appreciation mid-February for food that was preserved by one’s own hands. How delicious and refreshing a berry-flavored preserved drink is, watching the snow fly! Whether consumed as fruit drink or a base for cocktail, it is a nice glass of history and summer to imbibe, when the only signs of spring are a silly groundhog.

Have you ever made shrubs? What tips would you suggest? Share your thoughts in the section below:

Works Cited

“Cooling Off With Switchels and Shrubs. “The Ultimate History Project.” UHP, nd. Web. 4, Nov.2015

Cotner, Meg  “How To Make A Shrub Syrup.” “Harmonious Belly.” Self published 19, July, 2012.Web. 4, Nov.2015.

“Difford’s Guide For Discerning Drinkers.” “Class Magazine.” “Odd Firm of Sin Ltd.” 9, Aug.2011.Web. 4, Nov.2015.

Jung, Alyssa (Adapted). “Thirteen Health Benefits of Apple Cider Vinegar.” Reader’s Digest.”Life Rich Publishing.N.D. Web.4, Nov.2015.

Kim. “Strawberries +Vinegar=Shrub, A Beverage Revelation.” Canning Across America.”  N.P.16, July, 2012. Web. 4, Nov.2015.

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