Nate and I made some mocktails for Brit and Sam’s San Francisco wedding in June of 2016. They were having cocktails at their reception, but wanted something sans alcohol for mingling after their ceremony in the woods. This is one of them. We found a recipe online that we thought would pair well with a fresh Thai basil garnish, a common ingredient throughout Southeast Asia and a nod to Sam’s Vietnamese heritage.
It was the very beginning of that year’s BC cherry season, and I managed to find enough ripe cherries on our tree to squeak out a huge batch of shrub that road tripped in a big ol’ jar on the drive down to California with Brit, Hobbit the Dog, and I before the wedding. Thankfully, it didn’t leak because LOOK at how dark this shit is!
Shrubs are an old school way of preserving summer fruit with vinegar and sugar, from back in the day before electric refrigerators. Some recipes you’ll find use heat to cook them down, and that method may be faster, but I’ve read this slower, cold method preserves the subtle, fresh flavours of fruit much better. Sweet cherries, in particular, tend to lose their flavor when cooked. Also, who wants to turn on the stove when you don’t need to in the summer?
Notes: Shrubs make a refreshing summer beverage when added to fizzy water, and can also make for an exciting cocktail ingredient, and allow for quite a lot of playful experimentation. You will typically use a ratio of 1 part fruit, 1 part sugar, and 1 part vinegar. For this recipe I am using dark sweet cherries, a mix of white and demerara sugar (I wanted some of the dark complexity of the demerara but didn’t want to overwhelm the cherry flavour. You could also just use all raw sugar or turbinado… or just even all white sugar), a blend of apple cider and balsamic vinegar, plus some spices. Adapted from: Stirred Not Shaken.
1. Pit your cherries and weigh them. Make a note for yourself — you’ll need that number tomorrow.
2. Weigh out the same amount of sugar.
3. Add the sugar to your cherries and mash the mixture together until all the sugar is wet, and the cherries start releasing their juices.
4. Cover and set aside in a cool place for 24-36 hours. I’ve left mine on the counter as my house stays pretty cool. If you have a really hot home, I would maybe leave them in the fridge during the heat of day and out on the counter in the cool of evening. If you have to keep them in the fridge the whole time, I would let them macerate for a good 48 hours.
The next step in this cherry shrub is a simple one:
1. Weigh out some vinegar. You want the same weight of vinegar as you had cherries. I used a combination of balsamic and apple cider, with an emphasis on balsamic. Just over half and half. Mostly, because that’s how much I had on hand, rather than for any meaningful reason. Stir it into your cherry/sugar mixture.
2. Add some partially cracked (not ground) black peppercorns and quills of cinnamon. I’ve used 14 peppercorns and two and a half quills with my approximately 500 grams of cherries in this batch. The cinnamon I’ve used here is specifically Ceylon. There’s a big difference between this flaky, subtle cinnamon and the hard sticks of cassia that are typically marketed as “cinnamon” in grocery stores. A quick search online will show you how to identify the easy-to-spot differences, but I’ve included a photo of the Ceylon cinnamon sticks I used. You can certainly use cassia, but I would use half as much, as the flavour is more potent and slightly bitter.
3. Cover your container. Put your mixture in a cool, dark place (or the fridge) for about a week. You’ll want to stir it occasionally to get the sugar to dissolve.
Final step for the cherry shrub! The shrub is ready to be strained after about a week of steeping. I left it for two weeks to get some extra flavour from the cinnamon and black pepper.* Strain the fruit and spices and press the solids to squeeze out all the juice. Pour into clean jars or bottles and store in the fridge for quite an impressive length of time. (*That was a lie. I pretty much just kept forgetting to do anything with it…it’s a flexible recipe!)
Ready to drink immediately: mix to taste with some club soda or other fizzy water over ice, and garnish with some fresh Thai basil for a refreshing non-alcoholic beverage. Or use it in a cocktail in place of citrus! You’ll notice the tang mellows quite a bit after some aging, which is quite nice.