We have a dizzying array of beverage options, from soda pop and sports drinks to bottled water, iced coffees, and dozens of juices. But sometimes the oldest and simplest choices are best, which may be one reason switchel is making a comeback.
A Taste of History
Switchel is a sweetened mixture of water and apple cider vinegar spiced with ginger. Vinegar-based drinks have been used to quench thirst around the world since ancient times; in about 400 B.C.E., Greek physician Hippocrates described a vinegar and honey beverage called “oxymel.” Switchel became popular in colonial America because of the availability of Caribbean ingredients, specifically ginger and molasses. The popularity of switchel was well established in the American colonies by the late 1600s, with the proportions of the ingredients varying according to personal taste, and the type of sweetener varying according to local availability. In the South, molasses and sorghum were favored; in New England maple syrup was prevalent. Honey or sugar, white or brown, might have been used anywhere they were available and not too expensive. By the 1800s, switchel was a staple beverage everywhere in the United States.
Laura Ingalls Wilder described a version of switchel that she called “ginger-water” in The Long Winter, a volume set in the 1880s and one of her “Little House” books. Laura’s mother sent a mixture of water, sugar, vinegar, and ginger out to the fields to refresh her husband and daughter, who were making hay in the summer heat. Switchel was used so often for that purpose that it was also called “haymaker’s punch.”
Rapid rehydration is one of switchel’s benefits. “Switchel was the original Gatorade,” says Don Osmer, co-owner of the Vermont Switchel Co., which sells the product at local markets, co-ops, and online. Osmer and his business partner, Terry Mullen, purchased the company from the woman who’d formed the business around her own family’s unique recipe. Osmer, a native Vermonter, says, “Most farm families in Vermont had their own recipes.”
Osmer and Mullen take local roots seriously, producing their switchel with maple syrup and apple cider vinegar from Vermont. They sell a concentrated form of the drink, described by Osmer as “switchel without the water.” The concentrate is popular with runners, mountain bikers, and other endurance athletes. Another repeat customer is a reenactment company that stages events from the Revolutionary and Civil War eras, and strives to remain authentic to the time periods represented. Switchel fits the bill.
Long before science could explain the importance of replacing electrolytes, our ancestors understood how refreshing tart drinks could be. Simple hydration is critical, but switchel also contains potassium (especially when made with blackstrap molasses) and other elements that help the body replenish itself after hard work. The ginger that makes switchel uniquely switchel is known to soothe the digestive system and may reduce inflammation and muscle aches. And apple cider vinegar, especially when raw and unfiltered, contains beneficial bacteria that are good for your gut.
The Amazing ACV
Apple cider vinegar led Melina Lamer, who founded Superior Switchel Co. in Minnesota, to stumble upon her own recipe for switchel. Lamer suffered from frequent bouts of heartburn as a college student, and her grandmother suggested she could find relief by downing a shot of apple cider vinegar. The home remedy helped but didn’t taste good, so Lamer experimented with adding honey and ginger tea to the vinegar to make the drink more palatable. The concoction was better than good; it became Lamer’s go-to refreshment. When she formed her company in 2015 to begin selling the beverage, she did some research and discovered her idea wasn’t hers alone. “I thought I was creating an easy way to drink vinegar, but it turns out the idea was created centuries ago.”
With a Twist of Ginger
Food writer Ann Chandonnet believes the ginger in switchel provides a flavor twist that keeps people drinking long enough to thoroughly rehydrate their systems. She grew up on a dairy farm and apple orchard in Massachusetts in the 1940s and ’50s, and was responsible for weeding a 2-acre vegetable garden when she was a girl. Chandonnet was never served switchel, only plain water, but she did overhear older people talking about the beverage. Decades later, as a culinary historian, she discovered switchel’s origins and historical importance, and included a recipe in her book The Pioneer Village Cookbook. (See “Pioneer Switchel” recipe below.)
Switchel lovers seek a balance between sweet and tangy. Sugary beverages are easy to find, but switchel’s combination of sweet and tangy, along with its spicy punch, makes it special. Emily Han, author of Wild Drinks and Cocktails, says it’s that balance she looks for when she’s evaluating switchels. “A switchel shouldn’t be cloyingly sweet, but have tension between the different flavors: tangy, sweet, warm, and spicy.”
Make It Your Own
For Han, one of the best things about switchel is the flexibility of the basic recipe. You can use a base of vinegar, sweetener, and ginger as a template, and experiment with the add-ons. Sometimes seltzer is substituted for all or part of the water to give the drink a little more bite. Switchel is increasingly being used as a base for alcoholic drinks, and also for unique flavor medleys, with additional ingredients, such as cinnamon, anise, blackberry, or lavender. “That’s part of the fun,” Han says. “You can customize switchel to your own taste. Be creative.”
Traditionally, switchel was served cold or at room temperature. Crews working in the fields sometimes took along a jug of switchel and placed it in a spring or other water source, or under a tree — whatever was available to keep it cool. But switchel is refreshing and hydrating even when it’s warm.
Freshly grated ginger adds a bright flavor to switchel, but ground ginger is more traditional. For most of our ancestors, the powdered version was more readily available. (Most ginger in the United States was, and still is, imported.) You can boil the ginger in the water, or simply stir it into room-temperature water and allow it to infuse gently. Boiling imparts a stronger ginger flavor, while infusing delivers a lighter taste.
The flavor keeps contemporary switchel drinkers coming back to this restorative, easy-to-make drink. As entrepreneur Melina Lamer says, “The best thing about switchel is the layered complexity. First you notice the vinegar, then you taste the tang followed by a slight sweetness. Finally, you’re left with a slight burn in your throat or a clearing of your sinuses.” That unique combination is something Gatorade just can’t match!
Mary-Ann Lieser is a freelance writer and registered nurse. She sells used books in Wooster, Ohio, and has given birth at home to eight children.
Handcraft Your New Favorite Drink
You can use ingredients from your own backyard, farm, or local market to create 100 artisan drinks that’ll leave you feeling refreshed and revitalized. Inside the pages of this book, you’ll learn useful fermentation techniques to make your own kefir and homemade sodas; brew your own teas; mix your own squashes, shrubs, switchels, tonics, and infusions; and even use the recipes to create powerful and healthful craft cocktails.
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