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 was brought up from populations in the West Indies. What we do know is that it first gained popularity in the 17th or 18th century and that the precedent for similar drinks goes back a long time. In ancient Greece, a honey vinegar tonic called Oxymel was an important medicinal frequently paired with herbs that continued in popularity into at least Renaissance times. In modern-day Iran, a traditional drink called Sekanjabin that combines honey or sugar with white vinegar and mint is a popular beverage on hot afternoons.
Most people aren’t making hay by hand anymore, but Switchel is making a resurgence in popularity. While the tradition never really went away in New England and Amish country, a number of retailers have started marketing their own blends to be sold alongside Kombucha and other health-drinks. Up Mountain Switchel makes their switchel the traditional Vermont way—with maple syrup in lieu of molasses, and a number of trendy bars have started offering switchel-based cocktails. But if you prefer to go a more traditional route, check out Townsend’s video for making colonial switchel here, or try our take on it below. Happy Hydrating!
1 gallon Water (with 4 cups set aside) ⅓ cup chopped fresh ginger (or to taste) 1 cup Golden Unsulphured Molasses (not blackstrap) ½ Cup Raw Apple Cider Vinegar One or more lemons
To infuse the ginger, take the chopped ginger and 4 cups of water and place in a small pot. Bring to a boil, remove from heat and let it sit covered until it cools to room temperature OR combine chopped ginger and 4 cups water in a mason jar or bowl and let it sit overnight in the refrigerator. For a stronger ginger taste leave ginger pieces in or strain out ginger pieces out when infused and save water.
In a large pitcher, food-grade bucket, punch bowl or drink dispenser, combine water, ginger-water, Apple Cider Vinegar and molasses and stir to combine.
Let chill for several hours and add the juice of half a lemon just before serving.
Serve in glasses and garnish with lemon slices. Mix it up: Try substituting Honey, Maple Syrup or Brown sugar and adding fruit pieces just before serving. For a lower-sugar version, try a mixture of ½ switchel and ½ sparkling water or seltzer. These ratios work well as a rehydrator after the fact, but during more serious physical activity we like to water it down some! Do you have memories of Switchel? Let us know in the comments what ratio you like or what you’d try adding to it!