Holiday beverages are different around the world. Some are low alcohol and warming, like German glühwein and other mulled wines, while others are thick and booze-forward, like Mexico’s rompope and other various versions of eggnog. On the Caribbean island of Martinique, the classic holiday drink is unlike any other: shrubb.
Shrubb is an overproof Martinique rhum agricole that’s flavored with local citrus, cane syrup, and spices. It’s not to be confused with shrub with one “b,” which is the vinegar-based fruit and sugar concoction that was popular in colonial America. Martinique’s shrubb is drunk every year starting around Toussaint (All Saint’s Day on November 1) and ending around Christmas Eve, and it’s at the center of Chanté Nwel traditions when people on Martinique gather to party and sing carols.
Martinique’s distilleries put out commercial versions of shrubb — Rhum Clément Creole Shrubb is a popular version available in the US — but people typically make their own using family recipes.
“There’s a whole ceremonial tradition around shrubb,” says Kiowa Bryan, the national brand manager and marketing director for Spiribaum, which owns Rhum Clément. “A lot of families have massive dinners and celebrate together, and after dinner they clear the table and get the citrus out.”
The child who peels the most perfect spiral of citrus, Bryan says, gets to hang it on the tree (or filao) like a trophy. The rest of the citrus is dehydrated in the sun for a couple of weeks to concentrate the flavors. Some families only use the peels, while others use the pulp of the fruit as well. After about two weeks when the citrus has dried, it’s added to jars of Martinique rhum (typically unaged and around 100 proof or higher) along with sugarcane syrup and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, anise, and clove.
The jars sit in the sun and soak like sun tea for two to three weeks. After that, it’s ready to drink.
Shrubb is consumed and shared throughout December as part of Chanté Nwel. On Fridays, people gather outside homes and in public spaces to listen to live music, eat Christmas ham and petits patés, and, of course, swap house shrubb recipes. Bryan describes the parties as a sort of mashup between a block party and Christmas caroling. Everyone is on the same page with the traditional songs, which are recorded in a popular green caroling book.
While Martinique gets most of the attention for its Chanté Nwel parties and shrubb, another French Caribbean island, Guadeloupe, has similar traditions.
“If you find yourself in the French Caribbean and you go to a grocery store, there’s a shrubb section with like 200 different types of commercial shrubb from the various distilleries on the island,” Bryan says.
Many use oranges because they’re in season, but variations that use grapefruit and peppercorn or lemon herbana are available as well. Various local flowers and tree barks make appearances in the spice department. Regardless of the recipe, it’s not the Chanté Nwel holiday season in Martinique without shrubb.
How to make a holiday shrubb for yourself
Rhum Clément’s Créole Shrubb is one of the few that make it stateside, but you can easily make your own as well.
The first step is to get your hands on the right rhum agricole (a style of rum fermented from raw sugarcane juice rather than molasses). Martinique’s rhum agricole is protected by France’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system that designates where ingredients come from and how the rhum is made. Think of how Champagne is protected, for example, or Camembert cheese. According to law, three territories on Martinique can grow sugarcane for rhum according to strict specifications, and the quality of the sugarcane is carefully monitored.
Because of these rules, using a Martinique rhum for your homemade shrubb is crucial to get the flavor right. Rhum J.M. makes a number of options available in the US.
“The flavor profile of Martinique agricole rhum is very vegetal and very naturally spicy,” Bryan says, “so it really plays well with the ingredients put in shrubb.”
Then comes the additions. If you’re in a warm location, you can dry your citrus of choice outdoors. The rest of us can dehydrate the citrus in the oven at the lowest temperature for a few hours before putting it into a mason jar. Pick out your favorite spices — cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, star anise, allspice, and vanilla are all great choices — and add them to the mason jar as well.
“That would be my starting point but really be as creative as possible,” Bryan says. “If you want to go a more savory route you can do something with grapefruit and rosemary.”
Then pour in the rhum, put it in the sun, and wait until the flavor is just right by test tasting it often. Add simple syrup (or sugarcane syrup if you can get your hands on it) to taste.
The exact proportions of what goes into the rhum is variable. The best way to find what works for you is to make a few batches and taste as it’s aged. Whatever lands in your recipe, throwing Martinique-style shrubb to the holiday drinks menu can help make a cold winter’s day feel a little warmer.