Everyone has a favourite drink. Whether it’s a pint of pale ale, a smooth glass of merlot, or a certain cocktail for when we’re feeling fancy, we know what we like and what we’d rather avoid. We’re also very particular about how we drink it. Hold the ice. Shaken not stirred. Deviations from the norm can be seen as a form of alcoholic sacrilege, as today’s debates over the merits of the pre-mixed or pre-batched cocktail might indicate. Everyone has their preferences. In many ways, early modern Britons were similarly pedantic, and recipe books from the period indicate an intense interest in what went into any one drink. This was particularly clear following the emergence of distilled alcohols, which we commonly refer to as “spirits”.
Spirits had long played a vital role in the maintenance of household health and wellbeing in the early modern period. Featuring prominently in English receipt books alongside a host of physicks, syrups, and salves, these curious cordials were designed to alleviate the ailing body and bring a physical respite to the suffering drinker. However, as the seventeenth century progressed, their medical function became increasingly opaque. By the early eighteenth century, distilled spirits were also consumed for their apparent intoxicating effects, fiery flavours, and socially lubricating potential. Although not all contemporaries were enthused by the emergence of these new tipples, recipe book writers demonstrated an acute awareness of how these liquors could be crafted to serve individual tastes and personal pleasures.
This newfound taste for distilled spirits was most evident in the case of flavoured brandies, and recipes abound for brandies made from, or infused with, a host of fruits, sugars, and spices. Cherries, raspberries, oranges, and lemons were enthusiastically squashed and squeezed into this heady mix. An anonymous receipt book, possibly kept at Worth House, near Tiverton in Devon between 1714 and 1773, even contained a recipe for rhubarb brandy, combining rhubarb, cardamom seeds, saffron and nutmeg. The author considered it an ‘an excellent receipt’ but suggested no obvious medical benefits.
Another popular beverage, infused with the juices and rinds of citrus fruits, was shrub. Although relatively time consuming, this fruity liquor was easy to make and did not require the use of a still. An example from the receipt book of Rebecca Tallamy, likely kept between 1735 and 1738, dictated:
To a Gallon of good Rum put a Quart of Juce fresh squees’d & strain’d, two pounds of good Loaf sugar, take half the Lemon rinds & six of Oranges & steep them one night in the Juce & Rum then strain it through a Coarse Cloth or Bag into a vessel or Bottle, Shake it three or four Times a day for Fourteen Days then let stand to settle till it is as water, then draw it off in Bottles Cork them well & hosen them down, besure not to put in any decay’d fruit nor a Sweet one.
(Wellcome Collection, MS.4759, fo. 173v.)
On the one hand, Tallamy’s receipt for shrub was straightforward. It contained three key ingredients – citrus fruits, sugar, and a form of liquor – that were to be mixed, strained, and shaken to produce what we might define as an early modern cocktail. However, beyond these three basic ingredients, there was no one prescriptive formula to be followed. Contemporaries either made do with what they had or adapted receipts to suit their individual tastes and preferences. The only restriction was to avoid using overripe or rotten fruit. Beyond this, the choice was theirs to make.
Another receipt book, supposedly belonging to Sarah Tully (c. 1708/9 – 1736), contained two recipes for shrub, each written in a different hand. One specified it should be made with brandy and three pints of boiling milk, whereas another suggested the reader could substitute the brandy for rum, ‘if you think Proper’, but made no mention of milk. Despite being penned only a few pages apart; these two receipts were considerably different, suggesting there was no one ‘proper’ way to make shrub. Personal preferences were paramount and could change over time. Another receipt book, likely composed by Anne Lisle in 1748, used the juice from ripe currants alongside a gallon of rum, brandy, or arrack, suggesting the choice of liquor was subject to taste. Similarly, a receipt book belonging to Anne Talbot of Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire claimed shrub could be mixed with white wine, cider, or brandy. The reader could choose ‘which [they] please’.
Clearly, shrub was a liqueur drunk for pleasure. But how was it consumed? Although some contemporaries might have drunk shrub as it was, it was frequently mixed with water to make punch: an immensely popular beverage with fascinating maritime origins. This choice is understandable. Undiluted, shrub was likely very strong, and very tart. Its zing needed to be tamed and receipt book authors made this clear. Sarah Tully’s receipt referenced above suggested that the liquor could be mixed with water to create an ‘Excellent punch at once’. Another receipt book, attributed to Mary Bent, contained a receipt for shrub with the addendum: ‘In Makeing the punch put two pints of Watter to one of Shrubb’. Shrub could be quickly transformed at a moment’s notice, suggesting it was a highly adaptable beverage.
In this respect, rather than being served as a drink in and of itself, shrub could be compared to an alcoholic squash, or a premixed cocktail. A point that might give some snobbish mixologists today pause for thought. It was bottled, sealed, and stored in keen anticipation of revels to come. Preparation was a fundamental part of this process. The prevalence of shrub in contemporary receipt books provides but one example of how individualised and adaptable the landscape of drink could be in early eighteenth-century England.
Tyler Rainford is a second year PhD student at the University of Bristol, funded by the SWW DTP. His research explores the role of intoxicants in early modern England, with a specific focus on how distilled spirits informed ideas about the self and society over the course of this period. More broadly, he is interested in consumption, work, and identity in the early modern Atlantic world, c. 1600 – 1800.