• Accokeek Foundation

Switchel: America’s OG sport drink

Updated: Aug 6, 2019

Before Gatorade, Powerade, and Vitamin Water, Switchel was the drink of choice for rehydration.

by Kate McGowan, Museum Interpreter

“I will give a traveler a cup of switchel, if he want it; but am I bound to supply him with a sweet taste?”– Herman Melville, “I and my Chimney” 

It’s hot. Really hot. Not “stay in the shade during midday” hot but “thank the universe that you have air conditioning and don’t even think of going outside until the evening” hot. At least, we would like to not think about going outside, but until we reach the point where flights are grounded, mailboxes are melting and railroad tracks are buckling, most employers are unlikely to close for a “heat day.”

On a farm, of course, the work doesn’t stop either. Nowadays after a tough morning of working in the heat, you might reach for Gatorade to rehydrate and replenish electrolytes, but in a time before sports drinks, how did people recharge? The answer is a tangy and sweet drink that’s simple to make called “Switchel.”

In its most basic form, Switchel, or Haymaker’s Punch, is a blend of Vinegar, Water, Ginger, and a Sweetener, typically molasses. Unlike refined sugar, molasses packs in a whole bunch of nutrients—including the electrolyte potassium—and ginger helps make this cold drink go down easier on a hot day. While the idea of drinking vinegar may seem odd to some, vinegar could add a tart kick to drinks in a time before easy access to citrus juice, and the health benefits of vinegar are numerous. In places where molasses wasn’t easily purchased, honey or maple syrup could be a fine substitute. 

Traditionally, Switchel is closely associated with haymaking, where it was brought directly out into the fields to be enjoyed on breaks. Laura Ingalls Wilder mentions a switchel-like beverage as a treat during the grueling haymaking process in The Long Winter, 

Now the sun and the wind were hotter and Laura’s legs quivered while she made them trample the hay….She was thirsty, then she was thirstier, and then she was so thirsty that she could think of nothing else…Ma had sent them ginger-water. She had sweetened the cool well-water with sugar, flavored it with vinegar, and put in plenty of ginger to warm their stomachs so they could drink till they were not thirsty.Out of the fields, switchel was allegedly the drink of choice during the long, hot days of the second continental congress, but the founding fathers apparently preferred their beverage fortified with Rum. 

Where switchel comes from, and who is responsible for popularizing it in the colonies first is unclear. Some claim that it was first brought over from Germany by the Amish, many of whom still consume today. Others claim that it wa