The Christmas Shrub

Have you ever had a shrub to drink? Not some random landscaping bush but rather the punch made with apple cider vinegar?

Everything old is new again and so shrubs, once the holiday drink of choice, are making a comeback. They are easy to make, being little more than vinegar, sugar and fruit but they’ll be the hit of the party ... especially with the secret forager’s trick of using apple cider vinegar infused with red cedar (Juniperus virginiana).

This common East Texas tree has been used as a flavoring agent for centuries. Worldwide, similar cedar/juniper berries, leaves and wood all add unique, resinous flavors to foods and drinks. But of all the cedars, the red cedar in your backyard has a very special property, its leaves contain thujone.

If you’re familiar with the legends about absinthe then you may have just perked up. Thujone is the key compound in wormwood that supposedly gives absinthe hallucinogenic effects. However, it doesn’t actually have that power. What thujone actually does is interfere with the body’s ability to break down ethanol. This means you get drunk faster while consuming less alcohol. Whoa!

To infuse apple cider vinegar (ACV) with cedar is simply a matter of pouring off one cup from a standard quart bottle of ACV and then start adding crushed red cedar leaves until the level of vinegar returns to the top of the bottle. This will give you the proper ratio of cedar to ACV. Cap the bottle and set it on a sunny windowsill, ideally for six weeks, shaking it every day.

Since Christmas is right around the corner you can speed up this process by soaking the bottle in hot water (120 F to 140 F) in a slow cooker for 4-6 hours three to four times. If using the heated infusion method, leave at least 1-inch headspace in the bottle to give room for expansion and open the lid a small amount to prevent pressure from building up and cracking the lid.

Once the ACV has been infused, the base shrub is made by combining equal amounts of sugar and the apple cider vinegar in a saucepan and heating while stirring until the sugar is dissolved.

Add in whatever fruits and spices you want to flavor the shrub. I like pineapple and freshly chopped ginger for a really zingy taste. Rosemary is another spice that goes well with many fruits, as is cinnamon. Firmer fruits such as plums, cherries, persimmons, and most berries work better than things like lemons and oranges, but lemon or orange zest is a great addition.

Simmer all this together for at least 30 minutes until you like the flavor. Add more sugar, fruit or spices as you think it needs. Allow the mixture to cool before straining it through cheesecloth to remove all solids, then store it in your refrigerator several days before use. This extra time allows more complex flavors to develop. Due to the sugar/vinegar concentration, it will remain good in the fridge for up to two weeks.

To use, combine 1 ounce shrub with 5-6 ounces of soda water, ginger ale or other soda, plus a shot of your alcohol of choice.

Note, since the flavor is strong you don’t need to use top-shelf liquors as their flavors will mostly be masked by the tang of the shrub. Also, be sure to tell your guests that these drinks will pack a bigger punch than normal, then dazzle them with your knowledge of plant chemistry that makes it so.

Merry Christmas and have a Happy New Year!