Shrubs: The full story

Mike and I (Jim) have decided that it is time for False Ox to weigh-in on the history of drinking. We kind of got into this business because of an interest in history and drinking. We aim to encourage a healthy attitude and respect for drinking whilst informing people about its origins. We will add information as accurately as possible and will add updates if we stumble across any info that is new to us. If anyone sees anything that they think is not correct, let us know and we will explore further.

So here we go. Shrubs were the first drink we started making at False Ox. Vinegars were discovered, as stories go, by accident when wine was left for too long in open containers. The word vinegar is from Old French and means sour wine. Evidence of wine making can be found as far back as c. 7000 BCE, with the oldest steady production winery been found in Armenia around c. 4100 BCE. The earliest evidence of vinegar is c. 5000 BCE from Babylonia and has been used by every culture and civilization since.

Early History

As early as 2300 BCE, in the village that became Babylon, they were using the fruit of the date palm to make wine and vinegar, that was then used as a preservative or pickling agent. Over a thousand years later, vinegar was being made from Rome to China. In Rome, it was made from wine, dates, figs and other fruits and typically served in bowls for dunking bread. In China, it was made from rice and used mainly in cooking.

Vinegar drinks as Medicinal Cordial to Energy drinks

Through its many names, vinegar based drinks have been used for centuries.

In Ancient Greece, Oxycrate (which was a mixture of water, vinegar and honey) was often prescribed by Hippocrates himself to treat wounds, sores and respiratory problems.

In Ancient Rome, Posca (known as Oxos in Ancient Greece) was made mixing vinegar with water and flavouring herbs. This drink was seen as being of a major benefit to the Roman Army. Posca was believed to give strength, while wine would make you drunk (Posca forlem, vinum erbium facit). As a drink it provided calories and was an antiscorbutic, which would help to prevent scurvy. The superiority of the Roman army was attributed to three things 1) The money they had through taxes, 2) The rigorous training and 3) The quality of their food and drink (Salted Pork, Cheese and Posca). The same drink was used by the Byzantine army and called Phouska.

Rice vinegar was regularly consumed by Samurai warriors. They drank it to relieve fatigue and for an energy boost.

Sekanjabin was a popular drink in Persia made with honey and vinegar, usually served in the summer seasoned with mint.


The word Shrub is derived from the Arabic word Sharab meaning “to drink”. They originated a few thousand years ago as a byproduct of preservation techniques. The fruits would be stored in vinegar and sugar which would draw out the flavours from the fruit. Once all the fruit had been consumed, they were left with this wonderfully rich, tart, yet sweet liquid that was packed with flavour and very little went to waste back then. They would dilute this “shrub” with water to make it drinkable and were rewarded with a drink more thirst quenching than water that would stay fresher for longer.

Another type of Shrub was popular in England and it started off as a medicinal cordial in the 15th century. Medicinal cordials were usually based in alcohol which had various herbs and spices steeped in it. They were called distilled cordial waters and they were used as alcoholic medicines, used in small doses to invigorate and revitalize the heart, body and spirit as well as cure diseases. They eventually evolved into liqueurs.

Around the late 1600’s, smugglers trying to avoid paying import taxes for goods shipped from mainland Europe, would sink barrels of spirits offshore to be collected after the inspectors had left. Sometimes sea water would seep into the barrel and spoil the spirits. They would make a shrub out of the spirits to mask the flavour of the sea water. The English and Australian Cookery Book called for almonds, cloves, cassia, and the peel of oranges, "infused in the best rum," with the addition of a thread of ambergris and vanilla. "Good shrub is very delicious, and were it fashionable it would obtain rank as a liqueur.” In fact, in 1728 an act was passed declaring shrub liable to the same duties as distilled spirits.

1743 - English Housewifery by Elizabeth Moxon. "To make an Orange Shrub, take Seville oranges when they are full ripe, to three dozen oranges put half a dozen of large lemons, pare them very thin, the thinner the better, squeeze the lemons and oranges together, strain the juice thro ' a hair sieve, to a quart of juice put a pound and a quarter of sugar; about three dozen oranges (if they be good) will make a quart of juice, to every quart of juice put a gallon of Brandy, put it into a barrel with an open bung with all the chippings of your oranges, and bung it up close; when it is fine, bottle it."

 1747 - First use of the word Shrub in the English dictionary "any of various acidulated beverages made from the juice of fruit, sugar and other ingredients often alcohol."






Pre-1800 - Benjamin Franklin, courtesy of the American Philosophical Society. Orange Shrub. "To a gallon of Rum add two Quarts of Orange juice and two pounds of sugar- dissolve the sugar in the juice before you mix it with the Rum - Put all together in a cask and shake it well - let it stand for three or four weeks and it will be very fine and fit for bottling when you have bottled off the fine pass the thick thro a philtring paper put into a funnel -not a drop may be lost. To obtain the flavour of the orange peel pare a few oranges and put it in Rum for 12 hours - and put that Rum into the cask with the other (For punch thought better without peel)."

1808 -John Davies. The Innkeeper and Butlers guide, or, a Directory in the making and managing of British Wines. "Shrub Cordial - Take two quarts of Brandy and put into a large bottle and put into that the juice of five lemons, the peels of two lemons plus half a nutmeg. Stop it up and let it stand for 3 days and then add to it, three pints of white wine, a pound and a half of sugar: mix it and strain it twice through a flannel and bottle it up. Tis a pretty wine and a cordial, for each tot of Rum add a double tot of Shrub. At the end of the evening everyone was cordial."

1808 - The New London Family Cookbook (1808) by Duncan MacDonald claimed that “raspberry vinegar…is one of the most useful preparations that can be in the house, not only as it affords a refreshing beverage, but being of singular efficacy in complaints of the chest."

1832 - Benjamin Morrel’s book  A Narrative of Four Voyages: To the South Sea, North and South Pacific Ocean, Chinese Sea, Ethiopic and Southern Atlantic Ocean, Indian and Antarctic Ocean. From the Year 1822 to 1831 …

“ They should also be carefully furnished with a due quantity vinegar which should be given to the men with their food three times day besides a spoonful each every morning for rinsing their mouths or molasses and water with a little vinegar in it should be out to them once or twice a day while at sea”

“ One word more respecting vinegar The water which we drink at sea is always more or less impure This is readily corrected by a little vinegar which also tends to promote that salutary perspiration which in hot weather prevents putrid fevers and inflammations of various kinds I would also recommend that every vessel be supplied with a quantity of shrub for the use of the seamen after hard fatigue instead of ardent spirits It will have a much better effect as the vegetable acid it contains gives it a superior efficacy against putrefaction. These two highly important articles vinegar and shrub would be found to be great preventives against the scurvy on board of vessels which are engaged in long voyages “

1835 - Richard Cook's, Oxford Nightcaps - "Oxford Punch - Extract the juice from the rind of three lemons, by rubbing loaf sugar on it. The peeling of two Seville Oranges and to lemons, cut extremely thin. The juice of four Seville Oranges and ten Lemons. Six glasses of calves-feet jelly in a liquid state. The above to be put into a jug, and stirred well together. Pour two quarts of boiling water on the mixture cover the jug closely and place it near the fire for quarter of an hour. Then strain the liquid through a sieve into a punch bowl or jug, sweeten it with a bottle of capillaire, and add half a pint of white wine, a pint of French Brandy, a pint of Jamaican Rum and a bottle of Orange Shrub; the mixture to be stirred as the spirits are poured in. If not sufficiently sweet, add loaf sugar gradually in small quantities, or a spoonful or two of capillaire. To be served either hot or cold."

1838 - Lydia Maria Child, author of The American Frugal Housewife, Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy (1838), deliberately mentioned raspberry shrub as a frugal alternative to wine that homemakers would be wise to adopt:

“Raspberry shrub mixed with water is a pure, delicious drink for summer; and in a country where raspberries are abundant, it is good economy to make it answer instead of Port and Catalonia wine.” (Childs 82)

Late 1800's - Shrub fell out of favour in England primarily because of the Gin craze and gin being so cheap, Shrub remained a Christmas drink mixed with raisins, honey, lemon, sherry, rum also known as nectar and it was a vital ingredient in, the punches.

Shrubs continued to be popular in North America until the early 20th century. When the arrival of the refrigerator meant people did not need to preserve foods as much anymore, they eventually fell out of fashion.

 As you can see, Shrubs have long been a part of our drinking history. With the fact that most modern cocktail mixers are overly sweet and syrupy, it is time to revisit our past and say cheers to a healthier drink.

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