Article by Seanan Forbes
Don’t let your bartender fool you. Drinking vinegars such as switchel and shrubs have been around for centuries. For as long as humans have had vinegar and honey, they’ve been mixing the two and drinking them. Vinegar drinks date back to Ancient Greece, Egypt, China . . . The opposite of a local favorite, vinegar drinks have always been widespread.
Switchel is made with cider vinegar and sweetened with honey, molasses, or maple syrup. Shrubs are switchel’s vinegary fruit- and vegetable-based cousins. Both drinks came to these shores from overseas. Their use is rooted in practicality and thrift. Some years, farmers had more fruit than they can sell and more fruit juice than they could drink. Turning fruit into vinegar, or using it to flavor vinegar, puts your produce to good, long-lasting use. If a farmer kept bees, then there was honey at hand. Farmers who tapped trees had syrup. If there were always laborers to be fed and watered, then there wasn’t always money to spend on them.
Mix vinegar, sweetener, and water, and you have a home-grown drink to keep the farmhands cool and primed to work. You’re not wasting produce, and you have a liquid that’s simple to store.
Switchel was appreciated by more than farmers and their laborers. When the US Congress and Senate were in their infancy, switchel was popular with politicians—no three-martini lunches for them . . . although they did like a dollop of rum with their syrup and vinegar.
Pour a glass of switchel, and you’ll be drinking like a Colonial settler. The Dutch and Italians could claim to have imported the tradition, but vinegar was drunk almost everywhere, and there’s no way to prove how that refreshment migrated here.
As a word, shrub has a venerable lineage. “Shrub” comes from the Hindi word sharbat. The same root word that gives us sherbet and sorbet, it refers to a syrup flavored with herbs, flowers, or fruit. “Shrub” is also attached to the Arabic word shurb, which means drink. Used for something potable, rather than plantable, “shrub” first appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine in the mid-eighteenth century. Contemporary shrubs are not spirited, but bartenders put them to delicious use in cocktails.
If you’re emulating farmers and cutting back on waste, then shrubs are your dream drink. They don’t need perfect produce. Whatever’s bruised or on the edge of over-ripeness can go into the pot: fruits, vegetables, herbs, chile peppers . . . There’s a shrub for every taste and season.
These days, there are two key differences between swichels and shrubs. Switchels are stirred and left to sit; it takes a touch of heat to make a shrub. Shrubs are made with herbs, vegetables, spices, and fruits; switchels are relatively simple concoctions of cider vinegar and a sweetener. With most switchels, ginger plays a spicy part.
As to how you use shrubs and switchels, the choices are as wide as your imagination. Switchels and shrubs are refreshing with still or sparkling water. Hot water will kill the live cultures, but when you’re fighting a cold, there’s something innately comforting about a mug full of hot tart sweetness—or hot sweet tartness, if your balance tips that way. Depending on the shrub, you might enjoy it drizzled over sorbet, or as a substitute for lemon syrup to drizzle over cake.
If those choices are overwhelming, then do what nineteenth century Harvard students used to do: mix your ginger-spiced switchel with rum. Add ice and top the drink with sparkling water. The Dark and Stormy has nothing on this.