Welcome to “Eating History,” a series in which Jaya Saxena of the New-York Historical Society mines the vast archives of the museum and library in search of vintage images and ephemera that offer a look into how New Yorkers used to dine. Follow the museum @NYHistory for more.
Do you know what a shrub is? A few years ago, a friend of mine made a blueberry shrub—a vinegar syrup that’s often mixed with soda water or used in cocktails—and I felt very fancy for knowing what it was. But after coming across this recipe for a Lime Shrub in the Beekman family cookbook (1800-1871), I started to doubt myself. Where was the vinegar? What is this brandy doing here? Why isn’t this the same thing?
It turns out a “shrub” is also a term for a fruit liqueur popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. According to Difford’s Guide, “Shrub comes from the Arabic word ‘sharaba’, which means ‘to drink’. The word is also used for syrup and sherbet,” and the beverage became popular in England because of smuggling. Due to high taxes on brandy and rum in the UK, smugglers would bring liquor from mainland Europe, then hide it in barrels off the coasts—a trick that could sometimes give the alcohol a hint of seawater. To mask the taste, they added loads of sugar and fruit.
Receipt for Lime Shrub
To 1 gallon lime juice, add 14 lb powdered sugar [YES, POUNDS!], 1/2 gallon brandy and 3 quarts Spirits; put the sugar and juice into a large stone pot and stir them well for a long time, removing the scum as it rises; when perfectly clear [note: you will not get it perfectly clear. Just clear what frothy residue you can and accept that lime juice is naturally cloudy] add the Brandy and Spirits and then bottle the shrub, using the best corks.
I’m guessing you do not have the time, space, nor appetite to make gallons of shrub, so I conveniently scaled this back to 1 cup lime juice (from about 7 limes), 14 oz. sugar, ½ cup brandy, and ¾ cup spirits (which I interpreted to mean vodka or any other neutral alcohol). Still, it’s a lot of sugar.
Turns out those smugglers weren’t kidding about wanting to mask the flavor—it’s virtually impossible to taste all that alcohol beneath the sweetness. What you get is basically thick limeade, which benefits from a lot of ice, and I’m guessing will be improved even more by cutting it with seltzer. Or you can just spike your brandy with salt water for a more authentic experience.