Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Infused Spirits and Shrubs Part 1: Getting Started

Raspberry-vodka infusion
 Infused Spirits
I very rarely make dishes with summer fruit that extend beyond washing them and standing over the sink to eat them - or eating them out on the front stoop, but that requires remembering to bring out a damp paper towel. If you're at the sink, no problem if you have drips and your hands get sticky, but... I had a hankering to make some infused spirits, and jumped in on the last bit of the main berry season.

Since it will take a few weeks for the infused spirits to get the the point where I can tell whether they're good or I give them as Christmas presents (KIDDING!), I'm going to refrain from posting recipes. I'm also thinking "infused spirits" rather than making a sweet, liqueur-type drink. When it comes to drinks - alcoholic or non-, my preference does not run towards sweet drinks. My default cocktail (cosmos w/my seesters notwithstanding) has one ingredient: bourbon, and (sometimes) ice - if that qualifies as an ingredient. I will taste the infusions, and decide where I want to go with that. I really don't want to end up with something that tastes like cough syrup. There are dozens of methods out there for any one infusion so I'm flying in the dark on this.

Right now, I have blackberry, raspberry and blueberry infusions sitting in a lower cupboard and am going to prepare a lemon infusion today. Oh - I also have a kumquat infusion that has been sitting there since June. It's doing fine, it's just taking a long time as I wanted only the essential oils from the peel and not much of the tart juice and I refused to strip the zest off of 20 kumquats.
My new favorite way to (temporarily) label jars and containers - blue painter's tape.

(See Part 2: here)

While I was doing research online and checking books about infused spirits, I kept running across "shrubs" and seeing references to shrubs: recipes for mixing fruit with sugar and then vinegar, mixing fruit with rum or brandy, sugar and (sometimes) wine - to be used to add to both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. At first I thought vinegar sounded like crazy talk but as I read more, I figured that if they were nasty, we wouldn't be still be using them.

The word "shrub" (applied to a beverage) derives, at least in part, from the Arabic word "sharab" which - as far as I can tell - and I heartily apologize to any Arabic speakers for any errors - means "to drink". Other "sharab" related English words are "syrup" and "sherbet". Perhaps the earliest time it appeared in a dictionary is 1747 in the Oxford English Dictionary as, "...any of various acidulated beverages made from the juice of fruit, sugar and other ingredients, often including alcohol".
Blackberry shrub syrup: I'll let it sit in the refrigerator for a week, then taste.
Stepping back in time a bit, punch (likely from the Indian word "panch" and Hindustani for "five") was originally made from five ingredients: alcohol, sugar, lemon, water tea and/or spices and named "paantsch". This drink was brought to England in the early 17th century and was made with a wine or brandy base. Then, around mid-century, Jamaican rum started being used. By the last quarter of the century documents make reference to punch houses (Wikipedia, "Punch (drink)"). Ye olde English folke brought punch to the American colonies. There's an interesting article I just remembered from Saveur on punch. Fortunately, the article (along with some of the recipes in a sidebar) is available online here.

In New England, shrub advertisements appear as well as recipes in early to mid-18th century. You could certainly buy lemons and oranges (I'm pretty sure they weren't cheap) but buying a bottle of shrub that would keep on the shelf was probably more economic. Making your own, even more so. Having a bottle of purchased or homemade shrub on the shelf meant you were well on your way to punch. Today, having some shrub on your shelf means you are on your way to a refreshing drink or cocktail.

 For the shrubs I've started so far (blackberry and raspberry), I settled on a non-alcoholic 'cold process' (Serious Eats: Cold-Processed Berry Shrub and Cocktail 101: How to Make Shrub Syrups) for these two batches rather than cooking the fruit together with the sugar and then adding the vinegar. Again, I think I'll taste before I make any recipe recommendations. I'm going to try a couple of variations in my next two batches - strawberry and lemon - as well.

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