Holiday shrubs: Probiotic, refreshing, and flavorful

Holiday shrubs taste great with soda water or mixed in with a cocktail. — Courtesy Meave McAuliffe

When you think “shrubs,” you probably don’t go running to your kitchen. You might think gardening, planting, or pruning, but Island chef Meave McAuliffe will tell you otherwise.

Shrubs are also known as drinking vinegars, and have a long history in the United States. Dating back to the colonial era, fruits were preserved in vinegar for storage and travel. The fruit juice and vinegar can be turned into a syrup, then mixed and enjoyed with soda water or cocktails.

“Regularly consuming vinegars helps regulate insulin levels, and aids in digestion,” Ms. McAuliffe said. “It replenishes microflora, which are the bacteria colonies that live in the gut and gastrointestinal tract. Eighty percent of our immune system lives in the gut, and is based on the health of digestion, so keeping good bacteria thriving is really important.”

Despite having an acidic vinegar base, shrubs are not overpoweringly sour, according to Ms. McAuliffe. The acid in the vinegar balances out the sweetness of the fruit, creating the right ratio of sweet, sour, and acidic properties.

“Shrubs are multidimensional and refreshing to the palate, which is why they’ve become rapidly popular in restaurants, homes, and kitchens alike,” she said. “If you’re looking for something to complement your regular kombucha habit, shrubs are it.”

Making shrubs is similar to making pickles or kraut, and is a great way to use any over-ripened or extra-bruised fruits. Herbs and vegetables also work for making shrubs. And once made, aside from being used in cocktails or sodas, they can be turned into jams or fruit butters by adding more sugar and cooking on low until they thicken. Follow any of these recipes by Ms. McAuliffe to get in on this refreshing, flavorful, and probiotic trend.

“Not only are they delicious, but they’re really good for your health,” Ms. McAuliffe said. “And what’s great about these recipes is that they’re seasonally available fruits. There’s local Martha’s Vineyard cranberries, our rosemary bushes are still alive and happy, and pears are a really great winter fruit. These recipes reflect a sense of place, and fruits that we have access to here on Island.”

What you need

Metal bowl
Fine-mesh sieve
Glass jar

Pear and Ginger Shrub

6 ripe and juicy pears
1 large piece of ginger
1 cup raw organic sugar
1 cup of apple cider vinegar


Chop the pears, cutting from the core, and dice into small chunks. Place in a medium metal bowl. Without needing to peel, grate the large piece of ginger. Measure out 1 cup and place in metal bowl with the chopped pear. Add the cup of sugar. With a potato masher, or your hands, mash the sugar, ginger, and pear together.

Now let sit for 18 to 24 hours so it can form a syrup as the sugars draw out the fruit juices.

Transfer to a glass or plastic jar, and add the 1 cup of vinegar (Ms. McAuliffe recommends a large Mason jar). Let mixture with vinegar sit at room temperature for 24 hours.

For either shrub recipe

Line a fine-mesh sieve with four layers of cheesecloth, and place over a bowl to catch the liquid.

Pour the mixture into the sieve, making sure not to let it overflow. Use a spatula to gently push the liquid out. Once the draining liquid slows down, tie up the ends of the cheesecloth so the mixture is tied into a round bundle. Pick up and massage gently over the sieve to help release liquid. If you are patient, you can place bundle back into sieve and let stand in your refrigerator overnight to let more liquid gather.

The liquid that gathered is your shrub! Transfer into a glass bottle or jar. You can enjoy now or let it sit for five days to let the flavors fully develop and the vinegar mellow. It will keep in your fridge for several months. Should make about 2½ cups of shrub.

Cranberry & Rosemary Shrub

4 cups organic cranberries
2 large sprigs rosemary (more for garnishing your drinks later)
1 cup filtered water
1 cup raw organic sugar
1 cup raw apple cider vinegar

Place the cranberries, water, whole rosemary sprigs, and sugar in a medium saucepan over medium/high heat. Cook the cranberries, stirring, until they have popped and formed a lumpy syrup. Let cool down to room temperature, and add the apple cider vinegar. Let it sit for 24 hours at room temperature.

Repeat “For either shrub recipe” from Pear and Ginger Shrub recipe.

To enjoy

Ms. McAuliffe recommends drinking shrubs with bubbly water in a glass over ice. She mixes one part shrub and two parts seltzer, and garnishes with a slice of citrus. If you’re feeling fancy, she says, throw in a tiny drop of bergamot essential oil, or a splash of rosewater. If you’re feeling festive, they make for exceptional cocktails as well.

The Pear Ginger Rum Fizz is made with one part pear ginger shrub, two parts soda water, and one part dark rum. Pour the shrub, soda water, and rum over ice, and garnish with a sprig of thyme and a slice of lemon.

The Cranberry Rosemary Bourbon is made with one part cranberry rosemary shrub, two parts bourbon, one teaspoon of maple syrup, and a few dashes of bitters. Garnish with a sprig of rosemary. In a shaker with ice, pour in all the ingredients, except rosemary. Shake vigorously until chilled. Pour into a cold highball or martini glass and garnish with a sprig of rosemary. If you have cranberries left over, skewer a couple and garnish with those as well.

Ms. McAuliffe grew up spending summers on Martha’s Vineyard, and moved here full-time three years ago to open Behind the Bookstore in Edgartown. She loves all things fermented, and is part of the Vineyard Fermentation Club. She frequently leads workshops at the Oak Bluffs library, and will resume classes this spring.