Pomona Shrub’s herb and vinegar-based elixirs blend historical roots with modern cravings
By Jade Neptune
In the early 20th century, North Carolina became the first southern state to effectively ban alcohol – enforcing an early start to what we would later call the nation-wide prohibition. While many resisted the movement by traveling to neighboring states to “bootleg” — illegally making and distributing liquor, such as moonshine — others embraced a trend that would last well into the century to come.
“Shrubs were really popular during prohibition,” Bethany Carpenter, owner and founder of local business Pomona Shrub says. “They have that kind of alcoholic bite to them but they're not alcoholic. It's kind of cool to be able to bring something that people are drinking during the prohibition era to current day for different reasons.”
Originally from 17th century England, shrubs are a type of vinegar-based beverage mixer that are made with cane sugar and flavored with natural fruits and herbs. The versatility of shrubs is one of their unique selling points, and part of what drew Carpenter to the industry.
“Loving the product really helped, and loving the potential of it,” she says, noting the market gap for a product like her shrubs. ‘There are other mixer companies around here but I only make shrubs. I don't do any other type of mixer. I feel like we're different in that way, and I really saw the potential for all the different avenues that I could take the business.”
Although today you can find Pomona Shrubs in their own brick-and-mortar space on Princess Street, in farmers markets, and local restaurants such as Rebellion downtown, the project began in Carpenter’s tiny apartment on 3rd street – a historic home from the 1870s.
“I have pictures of boxes piled high almost to the ceiling,” she says with a laugh. “I had to break the pallets down really quickly just to like not bug my neighbors and have like a whole pallet of glassware out back. There wasn't necessarily space, so it was just full, like my whole bedroom was overtaken by market stuff.”
Sitting in the middle of her expansive retail space that doubles as an event venue in the back — created from a building that was once a Coca-Cola bottling plant — it’s hard to imagine it would grow as quickly as it did, she explains. But even as Pomona Shrub continues to expand, the importance of supporting small businesses and thinking local remains.
“It's been nothing short of amazing,” she says. “I feel like my whole life is full of small business owners. I don’t have too many friends that don't have a business, which is really nice.”
One of the nicest parts, she adds, is that the other small business owners in Wilmington understand what it’s like and are always willing to give their support. It goes beyond just relationships with other business owners, though, such as being able to seasonally source some of their fruits and herbs locally. Wilmington’s spring season is a perfect time to grab blueberries from Altar Cross Farms, which Carpenter is sure to do each year.
Make it fun
Although shrubs were popular over one hundred years ago during the prohibition, Carpenter is keenly aware of the rising popularity of the sober-curious lifestyle and how her shrubs can play a part in the local community.
Surprisingly, one of the biggest benefits you can get out of drinking shrubs is that it promotes you to drink more water.
“When you make a drink with shrubs, you're doing a half ounce to two ounces of the mixer, and then you're topping it off with something like a little bit of seltzer or club soda,” she says. “It's super hydrating, and then if you wanted to add liquor on top of it, you could, but if you're doing more mocktail style, which a lot of people do, it's really just a little bit of that and then some water whether it's carbonated or not.”
As the Wilmington community hunkers down for the last of the winter weather this new year, Pomona Shrub still has you covered for the perfect seasonal beverage. For January/February, Carpenter recommends trying out the Blackberry Orange Ginger shrub with some ginger beer.
“I always tell people to do a little bit of the mixer and then blend with something bubbly,” she advises.
Even as Pomona Shrub continues to grow, its local roots are buried deep.
“I love being able to drop by Ceviche's, the Greenhouse or Rebellion and get a drink—there’s a whole bunch of places. It's just nice to be able to go out and drink your own products,” she says. “It’s a little trippy, but it’s a great feeling.”