For many, spring means decadent chocolate Easter eggs and sunny daffodils. For others it’s the first taste of our gardens’ offerings: tender asparagus, crisp radishes, and piquant garlic scapes fresh from the earth.
To Jessica Macpherson, founder of Heavenly Libations, the season means freshly picked rhubarb and strawberry for her locally made shrubs. For those who haven’t sampled shrubs, they are a tart yet sweet concentrate made from fruit macerated in sugar, then blended with vinegar to create a flavourful syrup. When diluted with a splash of club soda or water, it makes a refreshing non-alcoholic sipper. Or mix it with a spirit, wine, or beer to craft a delicious custom cocktail. Shrubs offer intense flavour without overpowering sweetness. “Our rhubarb ginger shrub is made from rhubarb harvested from a farm in Dove Creek,” she says. “It’s packed with flavour. I get at least a pound of rhubarb into each bottle of shrub.”
Shrubs were favoured in ancient Rome. Two millennia ago, a vinegary fruit drink was called posca, consumed to prevent scurvy among battle-weary troops. Later, the Arabs named the drink sharab (which means “to drink”) and the shrub was born.
Shrubs flourished in colonial times when settlers found that the vinegar could help preserve the vibrant fruit flavours of the growing season better than jams and jellies. Traditionally made with berries, the original shrubs were sweet and sour syrups that enlivened rum and gin cocktails during the off-season.
Now, shrubs are made from a wide variety of in-season fruits and herbs. Jessica uses fresh, never frozen, fruit from local growers in the Comox Valley when possible. This means her shrubs are small-batch, limited edition creations reflecting the bounty of the season.
“If you’ve ever compared the tart sweetness of a freshly picked strawberry to the cloying sugariness of strawberry jam, you’ll understand what flavours are lost in the canning process,” she explains. “My shrubs are never cooked; they are cold-processed. Plus, I pair each shrub flavour with the right vinegar to bring out those fresh notes that would otherwise be lost.”
This spring, she is looking forward to making more of her ever-popular rhubarb ginger and strawberry pink peppercorn shrubs, while experimenting with novel flavour combinations.
“I’m really excited about exploring more unusual tastes,” she says. “A sangrita-inspired shrub is my latest creation featuring sour oranges, valley-grown chili peppers, and pomegranate juice. Served with a splash of tequila, it’s the perfect accompaniment to taco night.”
Bottles of shrubs are available at Edible Island, Seeds Food Market, and 40 Knots Winery and Vineyards, as well as local farmer’s markets. You can sample a shrub cocktail at the White Whale, the Hub Café, or Locals Restaurant where flavours and cocktails change seasonally.