Herbal Summer Mocktails & Shrubs

Jul 20 / Alberto Carbo
As a former chef/bartender, I am frequently asked about cocktails and mocktails. Much of the time, it seems as though people are intimidated and unsure about how to proceed when in reality, it is quite a simple process, and if you are in any way creative, crafting delicious beverages will likely come as second nature to you.

Rather than simply providing a recipe, I’d like to empower and inspire you with the basics, so that you can engage your creative abilities and create your own unique flavor profiles, all of course with the goal of further incorporating medicinal plants into our diets.

The only thing you really need to know in order to create a well-balanced and rounded mocktail/cocktail is the following formula:
  • Base – The main ingredient, and usually a spirit, however, when making alcohol-free beverages we can substitute something like a shrub, a cordial, or even an herbal infusion.
  • Modifier – As the name suggests, this is a substance that is meant to modify, and rather enhance the flavor profile of the base ingredient. Also, usually a spirit, however as above, can be substituted for a non-alcoholic option.
  • Acid – Lemon and lime are the most common, but the possibilities are endless, and as long as the flavor is tart/sour, it’s a viable option. Tart tropical fruit purées or juices are a great alternative.
  • Sweetener – Usually a syrup or raw sugar, but honey, stevia, agave, and other alternative sweeteners also work.
  • Bitter – Classically bitters are used, such as Angostura and Peychaud’s, however, plant lovers should have no issue thinking of alternatives either in tincture format, or fresh plant material.

There are so many directions to go from here, but for the sake of practicality, I am going to concentrate on shrubs as one incredible non-alcoholic ‘base’, so that you can start creating your own refreshing beverages.

Shrubs were a staple and even medicine in a time before food preservatives, refrigeration, and commercially sold carbonated beverages, but unfortunately were largely forgotten, until the last two decades when bartenders became interested in them.

Not only are shrubs a great way to preserve fruit and other fresh perishables, but they are also a delicious and dynamic addition to many different types of beverages. The reason they were so popular, and frankly, the reason for which they should continue to be is the same: shrubs are an ingenious way of reducing waste and making the best of the growing season.

They are also a great creative outlet for the already culinarily inclined, as well as a great starting point for those who are just beginning to explore culinary creations, like kids!

If you are a parent, it is also a fantastic way to sneak as much flavonoid and vitamin-rich fruit into your child’s diet during the summer months, and into the colder seasons, disguised by wonderful aromas and flavors, as well as the fizzy bubbly textures kids gravitate to. Although sugar is a popular ingredient in shrubs, you can pick what kind of sugar to use, and even substitute it with honey, maple syrup, or alternative sweeteners. Definitely no aspartame in here!

Shrubs are a fantastic way to explore herbal actions as well. (You can learn more about exploring herbal actions in the free intro to Medicine Making, Tasting and Sensing Herbs.) The vinegar in a shrub kick starts the acidulation process, creating a tart, crisp and refreshing flavor and texture that acts as a sialagogue, stimulating the salivary glands, thereby helping to quench your thirst and keep your mouth hydrated. Don’t be mistaken, you should never replace drinking shrubs for water, but it is certainly a great way to cut through that dry-mouth-parched feeling we all get from time to time, especially in the heat of the summer.

Looking back in history far enough, we find that shrubs were used medicinally in the 1400s to prevent and remedy scurvy. Shrubs were popular amongst sailors and in countries where vitamin-rich fruit was not available all year round. Even further back, we know that ancient cultures added vinegar to their water to maintain its portability.

The abundance of fresh fruit in the summer season is certainly a blessing, but can also be overwhelming to keep up with. Although pies and jams are irreplaceable (yum!), shrubs add yet another option for embracing the abundance of summer, especially since you can use fruit and veggies which are no longer appealing to eat. As long as there is no mold on the fruit/veggies you are going to use, they are fair game, and in fact, these ‘past due’ perishables are ideal, as they help kick-start the fermentation process.

While I am providing a recipe, you will quickly learn you can’t go wrong with shrubs. You will find your preferred ingredients, or perhaps the ingredients that are abundantly in season, and through tasting and trying, come up with wonderful combinations.

Blackberry, Blueberry Shrub with Peppergrass & Catnip

  • 20 Catnip leaves, Nepeta cataria leaves. Add Catnip flowers as well if you find any.
  • 3 Generous sprigs of Peppergrass, Lepidium virginicum.
  • 2 cups Blackberries
  • 1 cup Blueberries
  • 1 cup Sweetener of choice (I use panela - minimally refined sugar used in South America since antiquity.)
  • 1 ¼ cups Apple cider vinegar
  • ½ cup Red wine Vinegar

  1. Muddle the Catnip and the Peppergrass in a bowl.
  2. Add the fruit and mash it. Add the sugar. Incorporate the sugar fully into the fruit.
  3. You will soon have a thick liquid purée.
  4. Cover with a cloth and let sit between 1 -2 days. The hotter the weather, the faster it will ferment, reducing the amount of time left out. You can also place the purée in a mason jar and cover it with a cloth if you are short on space. Stir occasionally to ensure the sugar is incorporated and dissolves.
  5. Strain off the fruit and herbs through a fine strainer or cheesecloth. What you are left with is a thick fruity and slightly fermented syrup.
  6. Add the vinegar.
  7. Place in a mason jar and cover for 48-72 hours. There is no set time when it is ‘ready’, taste it as you go, and you will find that the flavor mellows out the longer you let it sit.
  8. Bottle or jar the shrub in a sterilized container and refrigerate. It will keep for a good while.

As you can see, making a shrub takes a bit of time, but the hands-on procedure is quite minimal and fairly easy.

Now that you have a shrub, there are countless ways in which you can incorporate it into your daily life and certainly not limited to beverages.

Here are a few examples:
  • Muddle fresh herbs of your choice, either from your garden or from the wild, in a rocks glass.
  • Add lots of ice
  • Add 2 oz of the Blackberry, Blueberry Peppergrass, and Catnip shrub.
  • Add tonic or soda water.
  • Make an herbal infusion of your choice. Let’s use Nettles, Urtica dioica for this example. After letting the Nettles steep, add a generous teaspoon of honey. This will balance out the tartness of the shrub. You can add more or less honey, depending on what you are craving. Allow to cool. Fill a tall glass with ice. Add 2 oz of the Blackberry, Blueberry Peppergrass, and Catnip shrub. Fill the rest of the glass with the cooled and sweetened Nettles infusion. Stir, and enjoy!
  • Making a salad and don’t have a vinaigrette? Add equal parts shrub to the oil of your choice in a blender. Blend for a few seconds until emulsified and add to your seasonal salad. Or...
  • You could add a spoonful of shrub to some ice cream on a hot afternoon.

There are endless variations of shrubs. Imagine an apple cinnamon cardamom shrub, or a peach & toasted pecan shrub. You can also make savory shrubs such as a cucumber, dill, and radish shrub, or a tomato, basil & oregano shrub. 

Finally, I will illustrate how to build a mocktail with multiple ingredients, based on the formula I provided at the beginning of this article. Remember that the possibilities are endless and the palate is your canvas. What combinations will you try? (You can learn more about tasting herbs in the free intro to Medicine Making, Tasting and Sensing Herbs.)

Black & Blue Lamiaceae Fizz

  • Base – 1.5oz Blackberry, Blueberry Peppergrass, and Catnip shrub.
  • Modifier – 1/2oz Motherwort, Leonurus cardiaca infused apple cider vinegar. You can make this as you would a folk method tincture. Place Motherwort leaves and flowers in a jar, top with apple cider vinegar, and cover. Try it after a few days, The flavor intensifies as time goes by. Strain when you are satisfied. 
  • Sweetener -  1oz Lavender-Honey syrup (Make ahead of time: Lavender infusion mixed with an equivalent amount of honey – while the infusion is warm to dissolve the honey)
  • 1 egg white (optional but highly recommended!) This adds texture to your mocktail – foamy goodness!

There are seemingly fewer categories in this recipe than in the formula provided up top. This is because certain ingredients participate in multiple categories. 
  • The Base ingredient and the Modifier are providing an Acid component. 
  • The Modifier will complement the Base but will also add a Bitter component thanks to the Motherwort. 

Depending on how long you let your shrub sit, will determine how strong (vinegary) it is. This will influence your shrub to syrup ratio for your final mocktail. As always, knowing what ingredients you are working with will inform your creative direction. 

  1. Select a coupe glass (check your grandma’s china cabinet!) and put some ice in it to chill the glass.
  2. Measure out and add the shrub, infused vinegar, and syrup to a cocktail shaker.
  3. Separate an egg white from the yolk. Save the yolk and add the egg white to the shaker. 
  4. Fill the shaker bottom with ice, all the way to the top. 
  5. Place the lid on the shaker. 
  6. Shake it like you mean it (as hard as possible), until your hands start to go numb from the cold. 15-20 seconds
  7. Shaking Tip: One hand grips the shaker bottom, and another the shaker top. As you shake you are pressing your hands together so that the shaker remains closed. 
  8. Open the shaker, and strain the ice out. You can use a tea strainer and strain the mixture into a separate short glass. 
  9. Add the mixture back to the shaker. 
  10. Close the shaker.
  11. Shake it like you mean it once again. This time for about 45 seconds! You are now aerating the egg white, which is what will make your mocktail foamy!
  12. Discard the ice in the coupe glass.
  13. Remove the shaker top from your shaker and slowly pour in the mocktail. 
  14. Carefully place a soda can/bottle on the rim of the glass and pour in a splash of soda. 
  15. Garnish with fresh flowers of Lavender or Catnip and a few heart-shaped Peppergrass leaves. 
  16. Enjoy! 

*** If lacking a cocktail shaker, be creative, I have even used two sturdy plastic cups (one smaller than the other fit into each other). 

As always make sure to forage for plants away from roads and pollution as much as possible. Never overharvest any plant, as they are of course not only here for our enjoyment, but also here for the insects, bees, and birds. Have fun out there!
The information provided in this digital content is not medical advice, nor should it be taken or applied as a replacement for medical advice. Matthew Wood, the Matthew Wood Institute of Herbalism, ETS Productions, and their employees, guests, and affiliates assume no liability for the application of the information discussed.