Are you a lover of kombucha? How about herbal vinegars, oxymels, and the wonderful healing qualities of herbs themselves?
I really enjoy kombucha myself – especially brewing my very own, with select medicinal herbs to go well with its tangy, refreshing taste and digestive powers.
I also happen to really love herbal vinegars, Flemish Sour Ales, anything sour and acidic really (I owe it to my 50% Flemish Belgian ancestry) and you’d know my love of sour if you read another article of mine, Sweet & Sour Libations: The Craft of Herbal Oxymels.
But what this article concerns is not quite an oxymel – though it does boast the virtues of raw vinegar, honey, and herbs like oxymels do. (For an excellent example of an oxymel, I’d suggest you follow the link to my article above!)
On the contrary: I’m talking about shrubs. No, not bushes or garden plants, but a very traditional fermented medicinal cordial that masqueraded as a fruit liqueur, starting in the 1400’s.
If you love kombucha and other sour tonics, then you must absolutely try shrubs (also called drinking vinegars), and particularly making your own. They transform even the most healthiest (yet hardest!) to eat foods and herbs into sour and fruity beverages that go down easy – such as this beet and peach shrub, for example.
I’ve been loving them lately – and if you continue reading on, you can very well learn how to make your own herbal blends.
Shrubs or Herbal Drinking Vinegars: What Are They?
Originally, shrubs were medicinal electuaries to help sweeten the tastes of bitter herbal medicines, as first seen in Europe.
You’ve probably heard the good ol’ Mary Poppins tune: “a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
Old apothecaries would stock their shelves with herbal remedies, preserving them in sour, acidic vinegar to prevent spoilage. Then they would add a variety of fruit juices, fruits, citrus rinds, honey, and more healing spices to the mix – sometimes including spirits like brandy or rum, though that was purely optional.
A fermentation and maceration process then followed, and in a couple weeks: you had your shrub!
The end product was a tangy, flavorful syrup that most would enjoy added to tonic water or soda – refreshing, healing, and fizzy, like kombucha.
When early American colonists and pioneers settled in North America, shrubs were an excellent method for preserving fruits and herbs from going rancid – especially on long journeys out west, when having mobile food and medicine was incredibly important. The shrub then found its tasty way into bars, saloons, and cocktails.
Fast forward to 2012, and shrubs have made a sweeping comeback – much like kombucha, there are now shrub bars featured as accepted parts of many juice bars and smoothie stores, and sprouting prolifically in other places all along highly food-cultured, health conscious areas.
Yet shrubs are also trickling back into liquor bars, cocktails, and “mocktails” (non-alcoholic aperitifs). It would seem that the main reason for their comeback is for a new type of refreshing, cooling libation – yet there is clearly an undeniable health and herbalism angle to the shrub, making it an exciting comeback for the modern herbalist, too!
Shrubs and Herbalism: Health and Healing Benefits
As history and tradition do tell, shrubs were crafted for the purpose of making medicines taste better.
For all of us DIY home medicine-makers and herbalists out there, we know all too well how hard the struggle is to make herbal concoctions taste good – though it continues to bring out the inventiveness in us.
From tinctures, teas, and bitters to syrups, elixirs, and cordials – we run into creative barriers, limits to the herbal palettes we can paint on. Yet the herbal shrub gives us a fresh yet ancient, traditional, and endearingly rustic new option!
Sure, shrubs add a sweet-and-sour, tasty layer to your preparations. But unlike alcohol- or sugar-based formulas, the raw vinegar menstruum (base) of these effervescent drinks have health benefits and other virtues of their very own, making them arguably better for you than any healing herb extracted in alcohol or honey (arguably less-healthy bases).
Healing Effects of Fermented Raw Vinegar Shrubs:
- Digestive Tonic – Probiotics from raw vinegar (boosted by fermentation) replenish and tone the microflora of your digestive tract.
- Allergies – Food, seasonal, and pollen- or dust-related experience some benefit from probiotics.
- Antimicrobial – when added to prepared foods, a shrub with raw vinegar could help remove bacteria and even chemicals (like pesticides) while improving flavor, as seen in this study.
- Cancer-protective Properties – The live cultures in shrubs have been observed attacking and preventing the spread of cancer-causing cells in those already suffering from cancer, according to this study.
- Type 2 Diabetes Support – Raw vinegar has been shown to reduce hunger and fasting glucose in the blood, a helpful therapy to diabetics in a study here.
- Weight Management – A combination of digestive powers and reducing fasting glucose can help achieve or maintain a healthy weight.
If you’re a skilled herbalist thinking about crafting a healing shrub of your own, you’ll know full well that there is a whole plethora of medicinal herbs you can add in to your blend to enhance any of these properties.
Bitters like hops or citrus zest could make for a premier aperitif and digestive tonic; respiratory, anti-allergy herbs like chamomile and ginger capitalize on sinus-soothing, nasal-clearing relief as an allergy tonic, all in one tart-and-tasty drink.
You can also get creative opting for low glycemic index sweeteners, fruits, herbs, and veggies to make this a healthy alcohol-free mocktail for the diabetic or pre-diabetic: cucumber, prickly pear cactus, aloe vera, and blueberries are healing ingredients, for example.
Fermented Raw Vinegar Shrubs Also Contain:
- Probiotics – acetic acid bacteria tonify digestion, ameliorate allergies, and more in this research here and here.
- More Vitamins and Minerals – vinegar will preserve nutrients from the fruits, veggies, and herbs you add – while increasing the digestion and absorption of certain minerals as found in a study here.
- Herbal Properties – Polysaccharides, volatile oils, and more for certain therapeutic effects
Crafting + Fermenting DIY Shrubs
I’ve taken my main shrub-making inspiration from cook Mary Karlin’s recipe at MasteringFermentation.com. My reasoning: her craftsmanship involves a brief stage of fermentation, which in my opinion adds something vital to the healthy element of shrubs (as it noticeably enhances probiotic and enzymatic activity a bit). However, you can find recipes out there devoid of the fermenting process altogether if you like.
A gracious nod also to Katherine Heigl’s post “Shrubalicious” over at her wonderful lifestyle blog, Heavenly Days. She has a great article over there that tries out many different types of shrub-making recipes for you to also explore – and she was even so kind as to try out my own!
There are hundreds of different shrub recipes – as many as there are combinations of vinegar, fruit, honeys, syrups, juices, healing herbs, spices, and even methods you can assemble together!
For that very reason, I have boiled down all my own recipes into one baseline recipe: a shrub “formula” if you will, of how to make a good one, and with which you can choose, combine, and rearrange your desired ingredients at will.
Use it to craft signature recipes of your very own – while designing “mock-tails” tailored to certain nutritional, healing themes or needs. The shrub world is your oyster.
Deer Nation’s Shrub Formula
- 1 quart mason jar with lid and ring
- Cheesecloth or thin, clean rag of breathable material (with fine holes)
- Wooden spoon or muddler
- Raw vinegar (apple cider, coconut, your choice – I prefer apple cider. Must be raw for fermentation)
- 3 cups of “juicy” ingredients: desired fruits or herbal roots and spices (e.g. chopped garlic or ginger)
- 1 cup “leafy” ingredients: dried or fresh healing herbs of choice, or spices to taste (e.g. thyme, mint, echinacea)
- 1 cup (roughly) of juice to add to shrub after straining out matter, as liquid volume will decrease (lemon, lime, etc.)
- Parchment or wax paper
- (Up to) 1 cup sweetener of your choice – sugar, stevia, honey, agave, you name it.
- Fresh herbal sprigs (mint, rosemary, lavender, etc.)
The Fermentation Stage
-Place all “fleshy,” juicy ingredients in jar packed full with leafy and herbal ingredients. Muddle with a wooden spoon or pestle to release juices, oils, fragrances, and other properties.
-Cover with raw vinegar of choice, until jar brims almost full – but with 1 inch airspace remaining under rim. Make sure all ingredients are submerged under vinegar to discourage mold.
-Drape cheesecloth or other breathable cloth over mouth of jar, then affix lid ring (just the ring!) onto jar to keep cloth in place.
–Leave jar out at room temperature overnight (12 hours more or less). Like a kombucha culture, wild yeasts and beneficial bacteria will be captured; molds, bugs, and other pests are discouraged. (Side note: leave jar out for another day or two if you’re feeling brave, and want more wild probiotic bacteria in your shrub!)
-After fermentation is up, remove cloth from jar and seal it shut with both lid and lid ring. Place a piece of wax or parchment paper over mouth of jar before screwing lid back on – this will protect the lid’s metal from being oxidized and rusted by the vinegar.
-For next 3 days, you’ll be shaking the shrub as often as you think of it (like a tincture) as it macerates at room temperature, preferably a dark place. During that time, juices and compounds will be extracted, while carbonation and probiotic action takes place!
The Cooling Stage
-After 3 days are over, strain everything out of your shrub into a stainless-steel bowl or the like. Remove herbal matter (dried leaves, stems, twigs, etc.) and compost; keep fruit and juicy herbs, putting them back into the vinegar alone.
-Replace wax or parchment paper, seal jar closed all over again, and place in the fridge this time – your shrub will get cool and collected for 4 more days, as flavors mingle. Shake as much as you can all the while. This last process, in the end, totals 7 days (a whole week) for shrub development.
-Your whole week of carbonating, fermenting, and maturation is over – after 4 days in the fridge, go ahead and strain everything out of your shrub, leaving just the syrupy, fruity herbal vinegar in the jar.
-Here it’s time to add special flavors and extras to taste – put in your sweetener (honey, sugar, etc.) and juice (lemon, lime, grapefruit, your call), even an aromatic plant sprig that jives well with other flavors. I would even fancy cooled down herbal teas or kombucha for further fermentation and flavor at this point (this is your chance to “control” and round out your shrub a bit, bringing it closer to what you envisioned – and to better mask medicinal flavors)!
-Once you’re done, replace the parchment/wax paper, put the lid back, on and return to the fridge. You’ll let it sit for yet another full week to let it carbonate, thicken, and grow to maturity. Shake your jar sporadically to help unlock more flavor.
-After that second week, your shrub should be ready to use and enjoy. Take a couple tablespoons a day as a raw vinegar, probiotic supplement – or add it to tonic water, club soda, or fizzy kombucha for a fruity, sour, refreshing beverage or mocktail. Sweeten to taste if need be.
Certain shrubs can also go as salad dressings or ingredients to cocktail fixings! Add herbal bitters, syrups, and get creative – craft your own drinks, and dress them up to your liking.
Shrub Recipes, Concoctions, and Healing-Specific Blends
Whether you just want to get started making a shrub immediately – or you’re an herbalist trying to brainstorm some healing-formula combinations – try a few of my following healthful favorites out. They taste just delectable!
Keep in mind: the formulas listed here are not intended to cure or manage any illness. Rather, they are meant to provide sporadic, enjoyable alternatives to less healthy beverages (cocktails, etc.) and are tailored to match specific conditions.
Wellness Fire Cider Shrub (fondly called “The Burning Bush”)
This is a smooth, spicy remix of Rosemary Gladstar’s cold-fighting, flu-kicking recipe. It’s pungent, but goes down easy. If you don’t already know, the term “Fire Cider” is used freely among herbalists to describe a healing preparation made of chopped fresh ginger, garlic, horseradish, cayenne, and more herbs of choice in a vinegar (and sometimes honey) solution to fight off colds.
However, the term Fire Cider has been trademarked in a legal move to threaten small-practice herbalists. If you want to learn more about preventing and lifting this trademark, visit FreeFireCider.com; as well as make your own Fire Cider (and Fire Cider Shrubs) and spread the word!
- 3 cups “juicy” ingredients include chopped fresh ginger, garlic, and horseradish (1 cup of each approx.)
- 1 cup “leafy” ingredients include dried cayenne pepper and any extra cold-fighting herbs (e.g. thyme, sage)
- Up to 1 cup of orange juice or lemon juice can be added to shrub after straining out matter, as liquid volume will decrease )
- I add about 1/2 cup of turmeric powder to really bring out color, while adding anti-inflammatory properties for any stray sinus issues that come with colds and flu
- Up to 1 cup honey (preferably raw)
- My signature touch: 1/2 cup dried Goldenrod blossoms (for sinus issues)
Enjoy this shrub as a cold-season tonic, taking a few tablespoons 3 times per day during the duration of a cold. Or, dilute it with a bit of orange juice for a potent mocktail – though “The Burning Bush” could make an interesting addition to Bloody Mary cocktail mixes.
Honeydew-Cardamom Blood Pressure Support Shrub
It certainly cannot cure high blood pressure, mind you – but both honeydew and cardamom are considered helpful for those trying to manage blood pressure levels. Honeydew has a moderate glycemic index and plenty of potassium, a good mineral for those with high blood pressure to focus on (take it from the American Heart Association) – while cardamom has shown potential for therapeutically lowering blood pressure in a recent study here.
They also taste great together as a culinary pair, so this could be the perfect healthy-option alternative mocktail to sipping a less healthy cocktail instead!
- 3 cups of “juicy” ingredient: chopped honeydew
- 2-3 Tbsp. cardamom powder
- 1 cup (roughly) of liquid to add to shrub after straining out matter: I would recommend a combination of lemon juice, and a bit white wine or champagne (though optional)
- 1/2 cup sweetener of your choice (I used buckwheat honey – really adds to the combination!)
- Fresh herbal sprigs (try a sprig of basil, lemon basil, tarragon, or even cilantro)
Southwest Blood Sugar Support Shrub – with Grapefruit, Prickly Pear, and Agave Syrup
All ingredients in this one have excellent reputations for diabetics and blood sugar. Grapefruit has a low glycemic index, with added capabilities for lowering blood pressure and cholesterol (according to this health report), and even helping with weight management (in this study) – all common problems for diabetics.
Many studies, including this one, show that prickly pear cactus is a blood sugar superstar! To top it all off, a dash of agave nectar makes for a sweetener that doesn’t tamper too much with blood glucose levels – though make sure to read about the reality of how Agave nectar is processed. Low glycemic index or no, sweeteners of all kinds are harmful if regular parts of the diet, and agave is no exception.
- 3 cups of “juicy” ingredients (half grapefruit flesh, half prickly pear flesh)
- 1 cup (roughly) of juice to add to shrub after straining out matter- I use sugar-free grapefruit here, and mix in some lime as well
- 1-2 Tbsp. agave syrup (optional – feel free to use other sweeteners)
- Fresh herbal sprigs (fresh mint, fennel, or tarragon works well here)
Urinary Health Shrub – Raspberry, Cranberry, Cedar Berry, Spruce Tips
Mixing the astringency of cranberries with the piney tastes of cedar and spruce, you have here a mocktail shrub that could support you through even the most troublesome of urinary problems – U.T.I.’s, fungal issues, yeast problems, infections, you name it.
Cranberry is used by herbalists (and universally by almost everyone else I know) for such issues, with the present knowledge being that the berry helps “slough” pathogens from the walls of the urethra, bladder, and vagina – while both cranberry and raspberry have diuretic action.
Similarly, cedar (and its relative juniper) yields blue berries with known anti-microbial urinary affinities, supported in this review of urinary herbal medicines by herbalist Eric Yarnell here. It can be assumed that spruce has similar effects as cedar, though there aren’t many studies to back this.
Health benefits aside, the melding of raspberry, cranberry, cedar, and spruce makes for a fruity shrub with unique, juicy undertones.
- 3 cups of “juicy” ingredients: 1 cup raspberries, 1 cup cranberries, 1 cup Cedar/Juniper berries
- 1 cup “leafy” ingredients: fresh spruce tips (picked from the tree in May)
- 1 cup (roughly) of juice to add to shrub after straining out matter (cranberry juice)
- 1-2 Tbsp. sweetener (sugar, agave, honey, stevia)
- Fresh herbal sprigs (fresh mint works great)
Digestive Tonic Shrub – Kiwi, Green Tea, Aloe
The probiotic benefits of shrubs are patently obvious, making any among them a great digestive tonic. However, you can bring in the added aid of kiwi and aloe juice – both which help keep the bowels “moving” and soothe the digestive tract (medical info supporting that here and here).
The same sources point to both being ideal herbs and foods for diabetics – kiwi is a low-glycemic, while aloe has properties to stabilize blood sugars. As it is well established, the addition of some green tea brings in beneficial antioxidants, which can help marginally take care of digestive inflammatory issues.
- 3 cups of “juicy” ingredients: chopped kiwi fruit
- 1 cup “leafy” ingredients: loose leaf green tea
- 1 cup (roughly) of juice to add to shrub after straining out matter: aloe juice
- 1-2 Tbsp. sweetener (sugar, agave, honey, stevia)
- Fresh herbal sprigs (fresh mint works great)
Happy Shrub-making! Have your own recipes and inspirations? You can share them in the comments below.
References: Oakley, Tim (August 9, 2011). “Shrub: A History”. Class Magazine. Difford’s Guide. – “Anticancer impacts of potentially probiotic acetic acid bacteria isolated from traditional dairy microbiota.” ScienceDirect.com/LWT – Food Science and Technology.