When I was in Philadelphia last year, I noticed a trend suggesting retro concoctions such as Manhattans and sidecars might be too modern for today’s cocktail geeks. It seemed every place we went, reviving colonial cocktails, which include the use of “shrubs,” was a thing.
Shrubs refer to cocktails or soft drinks popular during the era of America’s founding. They were made by mixing a vinegar-based syrup with spirits, water or carbonated water. These “drinking vinegars” were (and still are) often infused with fruits, herbs and spices. The vinegar preserved them longer without refrigeration.
A Philly must-stop is the venerable City Tavern on South Second Street. This location is the site of a pub dating to 1772. The original structure was razed, but for America’s Bicentennial, the building was replicated down to the last detail.
Servers dress in colonial garb and their libation menu stays true to authentic colonial beverages: “Ales of the Revolution” and shrubby concoctions, some of which are drawn from Martha Washington’s 1753 Booke of Cookery, a family manuscript handed down through generations.
City Tavern’s shrubs are made from raspberry fruit juice vinegar sweetened with sugar and spiked with alcohol or fizzed with soda water. They offer a rum shrub made with spiced Rum, soda and raspberry shrub; plus Champagne with raspberry shrub.
“Think of it as a colonial Kir Royale,” notes City Tavern’s Jonathan Jones. Did colonists drink cosmos? Jones doesn’t know but he thinks City Tavern’s Penn Shrub Martini made with raspberry shrub and vodka is a close approximation.
If Philly isn’t in your travel plans, there’s likely a shrubby cocktail closer to home.
Josh Gandee ― bar manager of Watershed Kitchen & Bar restaurant, part of the Watershed Distillery in Columbus ― loves to experiment with shrubs. “It adds a lovely complexity to cocktails or for sipping with soda,” Gandee says.
Watershed’s first shrubs appeared in a baseball-themed cocktail menu, including a vodka cocktail made with lime, bitters and a tomato and strawberry shrub. Tribe, Clippers, Reds, Mud Hens and Dragons fans may have to bite their tongues as they order the Big Papi. We suspect Josh is a Red Sox fan.
Cleveland’s Butcher and the Brewer in the lively East 4th Street district is almost as well known for its innovative cocktails as for its well-crafted beers. This popular brewpub started offering shrubs in the summer of 2016 — a wild one in Cleveland due to the Republican National Convention followed by the World Series being played around the corner.
Mixologist Jessica Donnelly says, “We were experiencing one of our busiest times and wanted our craft cocktail program to grow, while still giving guests a quality experience. The idea of using shrubs to enhance flavor allowed us to do just that, all in a timely manner.”
When asked what inspired Butcher and the Brewer’s Hippy Hippy Shake made with a cranberry, orange, and cinnamon shrub, Donnelly explains, “We wanted to combine our favorite Thanksgiving flavors…We know how well cinnamon and orange go with tequila and we know how tart cranberries can be, as are margaritas. Bam! We made a cinnamon, cranberry and orange margarita with a tasteful touch of lime juice.”
To make Butcher and the Brewer’s cranberry, orange, and cinnamon shrub, combine:
2 tsp ground cinnamon
8 oranges sliced into eighths, then juiced (add sections orange with juice)
8 cups of cranberries, blended (add a bit of water when blending)
8 cups brown sugar
8 cups HOT water
Stir and let sit for 24 hours, then strain and add 6 cups apple cider vinegar.
Then, sip (or blend) like it’s 1776.
Photo courtesy City Tavern and Concepts by Staib, Ltd.