From colonial to cocktail: Shrubs make a culinary comeback

WASHINGTON — At 10 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, Charlie Berkinshaw met me at a crowded coffee shop in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood wearing a blue shirt that said “Drink More Shrubs.”

He set down a cooler packed full of bottles and immediately got to work mixing the liquids in thimble-sized cups.

“This is our take on a painkiller,” he says, handing me a serving of light orange liquid with ground nutmeg on top. “Well, we call it a skinny painkiller.”

A painkiller is typically made with pineapple juice, orange juice, coconut cream and nutmeg. (Those familiar with the drink also know that it comes with a heavy pour of rum, but seeing as how it was 10 a.m., that ingredient was purposefully omitted.)

Berkinshaw’s drink, however, used a pineapple turmeric shrub in place of pineapple juice and coconut water in place of coconut cream.

“The result is a really bright, refreshing, healthy drink that’s 100 calories a drink instead of 450 — so you can have four of them,” he says.

The orange juice and coconut juice don’t have much flavor; the key ingredient that made the cocktail bright and biting was Berkinshaw’s shrub.

Not familiar with shrubs? It’s time to become familiar. A shrub is a vinegar-based fruit syrup. It dates back to colonial times when vinegar was used to preserve fruit before refrigeration. And similar to other dated culinary products and practices, it’s making a comeback.

Shrubs can be used to make a variety of things — from salad dressings to cocktails.

Berkinshaw, who is the founder of Element Shrub, first started making the vinegar-fruit syrup when his wife was pregnant. Tired of water and juice, she wanted a drink that “had the complexity of a cocktail” but without the alcohol, sugars and preservatives.

A crabapple shrub mixed with seltzer water did the trick.

Just because shrubs are vinegar based does not mean they taste strongly of vinegar. In fact, many are a balance of sweet and tangy.

“What I love about vinegar is that it has this really unique funkiness to it — it’s savory, it’s acidic,” says Berkinshaw, an Arlington, Virginia resident.

“Our shrubs are made with real ingredients, they don’t have a lot of sugar, but they have this complexity that’s so much more exciting that juice or soda or water.”

Berkinshaw’s homemade shrubs were such a hit that in November 2014 he launched his own business. Now, Element Shrub makes five different varieties, including blueberry rosemary, chai pear, honeydew jalapeño, lemon mint and pineapple turmeric.

Berkinshaw pushed another small cup across the table. This time, it was his honeydew jalapeño shrub topped with seltzer. The sweetness of the honeydew lingered only for a second before it was chased by the heat of the pepper.

“With tequila or mescal, this makes an awesome margarita,” Berkinshaw says.

The blueberry rosemary shrub? Try it with gin. In the winter months, Berkinshaw likes to mix his chai pear shrub with bourbon.

“The lemon mint with fresh cucumber juice is also really nice — plus or minus gin, depending on the time of day,” he adds.

Berkinshaw’s recipe ideas for shrubs don’t stop at the bar. He uses them to deglaze pans of meat and to coat roasted vegetables. He even pours shrubs on vanilla ice cream.

“We did a take on a caprese salad with fresh burrata, almond pesto, some fresh cherries, some heirloom tomatoes, and then we drizzled the chai pear [shrub] on top. It was awesome,” Berkinshaw says. “We encourage people to be creative with their shrub.”

Shrubs are difficult to find in conventional stores and those that do carry shrubs sell single-flavor varieties, which are much different from Berkinshaw’s mixtures of fruits, herbs and spices.

In addition to making, bottling and selling his product, Berkinshaw says a major part of his job is introducing customers to shrubs.

“I knew going into this that one of my jobs would be educating people on what shrubs are, how to use them and how much fun it can be.”

He makes roughly 1,500 bottles of shrubs every six weeks and sells them at a number of local businesses, including Yes! Organic Market, Glen’s Garden Market, One Eight Distillery and Society Fair. In the future, he hopes to add a shrub soda to his line, and he’s currently working on partnerships with other local startups to repurpose food waste into a product.

Berkinshaw finds that the customers who are familiar with shrubs are well-versed in cocktail recipes or are fans of drinking apple cider vinegar for its health benefits. (Some studies show that apple cider vinegar isn’t just a folk remedy — it can help with blood-sugar regulation and digestion.)

But Berkinshaw doesn’t harp on vinegar’s health benefits, other than to say that shrubs are a more natural alternative to sugary drinks and mixers.

“Even though you’re having a cocktail, it’s a much healthier version,” he says. “If you can get your apple cider vinegar and your turmeric in one place and it tastes really good, and you can say you’re drinking a piña colada and can get all of that, then why not, right?”

Element Shrub’s website has a number of recipes for mocktails and cocktails. Here are a few: 

 Skinny Painkiller

  • 1 1/2 ounce coconut water
  • 1/2 ounce Pineapple Turmeric Element [Shrub]
  • 1/2 ounce fresh orange juice
  • 1 ounce rum
  • Freshly grated nutmeg

Element Sparkler

  • 1/2 ounce Lemon Mint Element [Shrub]
  • 1/2 ounce fresh cucumber juice
  • 3-4 ounces sparkling water
  • Serve on Ice

Element Toddy

  • 1 ounce Chai Pear Element [Shrub]
  • 2 ounces hot water
  • 1 ounce whisky
  • Serve in a mug
  • Add burnt orange peel for extra flair and flavor


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