Syrups, Sharabs and Shrubs

Summertime is my favorite time of year for a type of beverage that is sweet, sour, cooling and refreshing. These vinegar-based drinks are found throughout antiquity in one form or another, popular because they are easy to transport and mix as needed.

The Roman Army drank ‘posca’, made from spoiled wine (vinegar), honey and a flavoring such as crushed coriander seed.  They could drink this straight, or cook it down over a fire to reduce and thicken it, then carry it with them and add water as needed. It was considered to be a drink for soldiers and lower classes, although some Patricians drank it to show solidarity with the military.  I was introduced to the concept of drinking apple cider vinegar and honey in water when I was a kid in the 70’s.  Little did I know I was drinking with warriors!

Sharbats‘ are served around the Middle East today in flavors ranging from rose and sandalwood to lemon, orange, pineapple and hibiscus. They are a sweetened drink syrup made with fruit and flower petals, served chilled or warm, concentrated or diluted. The word sharbat (which stems from the Arabic word shariba – ‘to drink’) has given us many variations such as sherbertsorbet, and shrub.

Sekanjabin syrup
Sekanjabin syrup
Sekanjabin with cold water and mint
Sekanjabin with cold water and mint

In the 13th century, Arabs living in Adalusia drank ‘syrops’ made with flavored vinegar, sugar, herbs and spices.  The flavors included botanicals such as mint, rose and violet petals, sour tamarind and even carrot.

Sekanjabin was a simple honey and vinegar syrup that was mixed with hot water and served to the sick.  In modern Iranian restaurants, it is made with mint and often served as a cold dressing over shredded cucumber.  I like to take a bottle of Sekanjabin Syrup with me anytime I’m going to be out in the heat for very long, and I’ll mix it with cold water and sip on it throughout the day.  It is the equivalent of a medieval energy drink, keeping you hydrated while balancing your electrolytes at the same time!  (It can also be a dandy hangover cure for the same reason, or for when you have a wobbly tummy.)

Start with this 3:1 ratio and then adjust the levels of sweet:sour to suit your taste.

3 parts honey or sugar
1 part vinegar
Fresh or dried mint

Dissolve the sugar or honey into the vinegar and let simmer over low heat until it thickens and becomes syrupy.  If using fresh mint, add several stems and leaves to the pot and let simmer for 20 minutes before removing from the heat.  If using dried mint, remove from heat and stir in a handful of the dried leaves.  Allow to cool completely.

Strain the mint leaves and stems from the syrup and bottle in tightly sealed containers.  Experiment with the strength you like by mixing with cold or hot water.  Start with one ounce of syrup to an 8 ounce glass. You will find that your preferred concentration will vary depending on your hydration level.

Magnolia and Blackberry Shrub pitcher
Magnolia and Blackberry Shrub pitcher

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Colonial Americans drank ‘shrubs’ or ‘drinking vinegar’. These were infused with fruit juice, herbs and spices for use in drinks mixed with water or spirits. Even sailors took advantage of their high vitamin C content to help stave off scurvy.

I cooked out of the 1840’s cookhouse at Stone Mountain Park’s Antebellum Village a few years back and served Blackberry Shrub for one of the meals.  It was very well received, and some folks even poured some on their salads as well as making drinks from it!

Last year I had some fresh mulberries turn into vinegar in my refrigerator, so I took advantage of a happy accident and made Mulberry Shrub.  It was gorgeous as well as delicious.

18th Century Shrub

1 pt fresh fruit pulp or berry juice
1 pound sugar
1 qt cider or wine vinegar

Cook the sugar and pulp or juice down to a syrup. Let cool and add vinegar, then bottle it up.

Mulberry Shrub
Mulberry Shrub

Use your imagination when it comes to the main flavoring agent, seasonings, and types of vinegar. Verjus, white balsamic, red wine, raw apple cider, even malt vinegar will offer different flavor profiles to your finished syrup. Try adding syrups to still or carbonated water for a refreshing soft drink. Mix with hot water or tea for a soothing drink on a cold day, mix with brandy or rum for unique cocktails, or pour your syrups over shredded vegetables and salads.


While in San Francisco at the IACP Culinary Expo, I ran into a company that is selling fruit-infused vinegars and sponsoring a shrub come-back.  Lucero Olive Oil produces a white balsamic line infused with lemon, strawberries, wild cherry, fig, peach, red apple and blueberry.  I have been playing around with the strawberry and lemon flavors and have loved them in drinks and salad dressings.  We added fresh farmer’s market strawberries to the Strawberry-infused White Balsamic and topped it with sparkling water to kick off a dinner party a few weeks back.  We meant to get pictures, but they were so wonderful we drank them all before we could snap the first shot!

Whatever you call them, drink syrups are a great way to preserve seasonal bounty, keep tasty and refreshing drink options on hand at all times, and serve as a time-tested method of keeping hydrated and healthy in hot temperatures. Perfect for summertime in the south!

Give it a try and tell me how you liked it in the comments section!

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