Frontier Psychiatrist

Frontier Mixology, Vol. 27: The Sweet Vice of Martha Washington

Posted on: October 29, 2010

Differing views about the meaning of the U.S. Constitution have been flying fast and furious these days, with certain camps supporting the proposition that what our founding fathers intended should control how we live today.  One might point out the particularly unknowable nature of, for example, what the framers thought about the interplay between the internet and the purported free speech rights of corporations.  But then, rather than try to figure out what the founding fathers would have thought, it’s much more fun to just try to drink what they drank.

Gentlemen... to, uh, the Internet, I guess.

In the late 18th century, the term “cocktail” had yet to be coined, and the classic cocktails we tend to focus on here at FP were still four score and seven in the future.  Nevertheless, a myriad of punches and other drinks were compounded using the intoxicating liquors of the day: rum, whiskey, and brandies of all sorts including applejack.  At the time, most spirits were less-than-professionally-produced, and the addition of fruit, honey, and spices often helped take the harsher edges off.

One of the most popular of concoctions of the day was the shrub, named perhaps from a bastardization of an Arabic term for “drink.”  So trendy were these drinks that Martha Washington was known to serve them as First Lady.  Think of the shrub as the mojito of the Old Dominion’s smart set.

Not too shabby, Mr. President

But what were these once popular but now largely forgotten drinks?  Well, shrubs combined liquor with a vinegar-based fruit syrup made from berries or other small fruit.  As with many culinary wonders, e.g. sausages and pickles, shrub syrup was a way to preserve perishables before refrigeration.  Don’t be aghast at the thought of vinegar in a drink, however.  The tang is quite mellow, and you won’t feel like you’re taking a shot of salad dressing.  The hardest part is getting your hands on some shrub syrups.  There’s only one company in Pennsylvania that makes ‘em, but it’s easy enough to make your own, substituting whatever soft fruit you like, although raspberry is the classic.  A recently reprinted circa 1900 recipe from the Times works well.

Raspberry Rum Shrub

1 oz. homemade raspberry shrub syrup

2 oz. rum

4 oz. soda water or ginger ale

Stir together syrup and rum in a wine glass; add ice, top with the soda, two more quick stirs and you’re done; garnish with mint and fresh raspberries if you’re fancy like that.

The ginger ale makes the drink too sweet for our tastes, but may appeal to some.  It certainly would have been a big hit with people in the early 1800s, who couldn’t get enough sweet stuff.  Anarchonistic as it is, we also like to lace it with a dash or two of Angostura bitters.

For those on the lookout for trends in drinks, people have been betting on vinegar-based syrups since 2008, but it still seems like a good wager.  The vinegar’s acidity takes the place usually occupied by citrus juice, and, given the appeal of anything DIY, modified shrub syrups are an easy way to add a personal touch to a drink.   Shrubs were once the toast of Williamsburg, and perhaps they will be again, but of another, quite different Williamsburg.

Drink up,


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