Monday, August 29, 2016

Shrubs in History and a Recipe for a Currant Shrub

Currant Shrub
Extract the juice from the currants & to 1 quart of juice add ½ a pint of spirit, ½ a pint of water, 1 lb. of sugar mix them well & boil it a few minutes when it is cold bottle & cork it and keep it in a cool place – Mrs. Hoffman

Recipe Provenance

This recipe comes from a collection of recipes found in a manuscript journal located in the H. Furlong Baldwin Library at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. The manuscript is attributed to Ann Maria Morris and the date of 1824 is written on the inside cover. The recipe below is one of many from the manuscript that will be included in a book I am writing. The book will contain biographical information about Mrs. Morris, an annotated transcript of the entire manuscript as it was written, and a section of modern recipe adaptations (including this one!).

About Shrub
A shrub is an alcoholic mixed drink originally made in Britain with orange, lemon or any other acidic fruit, sugar, and rum as the primary spirit. However, shrubs have a Middle Eastern origin and did not become popular until the early 18th century in England. The early British shrubs were made with brandy, lemon juice and peel, sugar, and white wine. Rum replaced the brandy at a later date. Moreover, in the United States, shrub was often meant to refer to a cordial or syrup made from raspberry juice, vinegar (usually cider), and sugar. 

While my research proves that this is all true, it also proves that there is no definitive recipe for shrub. When researching historic American cookery books, I actually found a wide variety of recipes for shrubs. The earliest is from the first cookbook printed in America, The Compleat Housewife, by Eliza Smith. This book was reprinted in Willismaburg, Virginia in 1742 from Smith's original work published in England several years earlier. It's basically an English cookbook for American audiences. Here is Smith's recipe for shrub:

Clearly, this recipe is very much in line with the early definition of shrub because of its use of lemons, sugar, brandy, and white wine. Two early 19th century cookbooks written by Americans, Susannah Carter's The Frugal Housewife (New York  1803) and Lucy Emerson's The New England Cookery (Vermont, 1808), have plagiarized copies of this recipe in their books. It is entirely possible that this was the accepted version of shrub well into the 19th century in America. 

Another 18th century shrub recipe is found in the South Carolina manuscript, The Receipt Book of Harriott Pinckney Horry, 1770. Harry's recipe is similar to Smith's 1742 recipe in that it is made with lemons. However, oranges are also used and rum replaces brandy. This recipe seems to be more in keeping with the original British definition of a shrub.

Throughout the course of the 19th century, shrub recipes transformed into a variety of drinks made with assorted fruits and spirits. However, the American version of the shrub made with raspberry juice, sugar, and vinegar does pop up quite frequently. Here is the earliest version of this recipe I could find from Lydia Marie Child's The American Frugal Housewife (Boston, 1830):

Here is a list of the many different types of shrubs I found in 19th century American Cookery books. You will see from this list that it is hard to determine the precise definition of shrub as it was made with many fruits and sprits.

19th Century American Shrubs:
  • 1824: The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph
    • Cherry Shrub made with brandy.
  • 1839: The Kentucky Housewife by Mrs. Lettice Bryan
    • Cherry Shrub
    • Raspberry Shrub (with vinegar)
    • Rum Shrub (with lemon juice, orange flower water and honey)
    • Brandy Shrub (with lemon juice and orange juice)
  • 1840: Directions for Cookery by Eliza Leslie
    • Fox Grape Shrub (with brandy; Fox Grapes are native to the eastern US)
    • Gooseberry Shrub (with brandy)
    • Currant Shrub (with brandy)
    • Cherry Shrub (with brandy)
  • 1873: Presbyterian Cook Book by The First Presbyterian Church of Dayton, Ohio
    • Currant Shrub (with brandy)
    • Raspberry Shrub (with vinegar)
  • 1877: Buckeye Cookery by Estelle Wilcox
    • Raspberry Shrub (with vinegar)
  • 1886: Miss Corson's Practical American Cookery and Household Management by Juliet Corson
    • West Indian Pineapple Shrub (no added spirit, the pineapple ferments on its own)
    • Pineapple Shrub (with rum)
    • Currant Shrub (with rum)
  • 1887: White House Cook Book by Fanny Gillette
    •  Raspberry Shrub (with rum or with a combination of rum and brandy)

Mrs. Morris recipe for currant shrub could easily mimic anyone of theses period recipes. It is made from the acidic fruit, currants, sugar, and an undeclared spirit (she leaves that open-ended clearly knowing that rum or brandy would work just fine). Morris's recipe cooks up into a thick syrup-like liquid that can be taken as is or thinned with water or additional spirits.

Currant Shrub: Modern Recipe Adaptation
Yield: About 5 Cups

  • 36 Ounces of Red Currants, Washed
  • 3 Cups Water, Divided
  • 2 Cups Granulated Sugar
  • 1 Cup White Rum

  1. Place the red currants (stems and all) in a heavy-bottomed stock pot and add two cups of the water. Set over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Stir freqently. Reduce heat to medium and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently and pressing the currants to release their juice.
  2. Remove the fruit from the heat. Have ready a jelly-straining bag and rack or a fine-mesh sieve suspended over a bowl. Transfer the fruit to the strainer and allow the juice to drip out. While you can stir the fruit to release the juice, do not press on the fruit or the juice will be very cloudy. When completely drained, you should have about 4 cups of juice.
  3. To the juice, add the sugar, rum, and remaining one cup of water. Set over high heat and bring to a boil.
  4. Remove from the heat and cool.
  5. Served chilled as a cordial.


  • Oxford English Dictionary
  • Wilson, C. Anne, Food & Drink in Britain (Chicago, 2003)

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