Dating to the colonial era, switchel might be the quintessential American drink. So what is it? It’s a combination of apple cider vinegar, ginger, water and a sweetener—commonly molasses, maple syrup or honey.
“Sugarcane molasses was probably the first switchel sweetener when the drink originated in the Caribbean,” says Emily Han, author of Wild Drinks & Cocktails: Handcrafted Squashes, Shrubs, Switchels, Tonics, and Infusions to Mix at Home (Fair Winds Press, 2015). “As the drink caught on in New England, folks often used maple syrup, which was their local sweetener. I also really like sweetening switchels with honey, because the flavor tends to be brighter, less overpowering.”
Also called “Haymaker’s Punch,” switchel was popular among 19th-century farm workers.
“Switchels are often referred to as the original sports drink…raw vinegar, molasses (particularly blackstrap), maple syrup and ginger can provide valuable minerals and electrolytes like potassium,” Han says. “I love the interplay of sweet, sour and heat, from the tangy vinegar to the gingery bite.”
With all these benefits, it’s no surprise that switchel is again popular, thanks in part to advocates like Han, but also due to a crop of small-batch commercial producers.
Vermont Switchel Company and Up Mountain Switchel (which originated in Vermont and is now based in Brooklyn) produce switchels that are sweetened with maple syrup. There are also honeyed versions, made by Minnesota-based Saint Paul Switchel and Superior Switchel. All these are available at gourmet grocery stores and online. Everyone’s formula is a little different, so don’t be hesitant to switch around.
“The first time I tried [it], I was like, ‘This is so obviously the base of a cocktail,’ ” says Del Pedro of Tooker Alley in Brooklyn. His Haymaker’s Punch is made with cane syrup, simple syrup, ginger, cider vinegar, lemon, Bourbon and a surprising splash of Aperol.
“Aperol is made from rhubarb,” says Pedro. “Rhubarb, ginger, apple cider? You can’t go wrong.”
Across town at Montana’s Trail House, Chef Nate Courtland ferments his own apple cider vinegar and ages his maple-syrup sweetened switchel in Bourbon barrels. The finished product serves as a base for a selection of cocktails.
While switchel mixology seems limited to Brooklyn for now, New Hampshire’s Boggy Meadow Farm bottles a Switchel Cider Vodka ready to enjoy at home.
Ginger Switchel Recipe
- 3 cups warm water
- ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 3 tablespoons molasses, pure maple syrup or honey
- 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
Combine all the ingredients in glass jar or pitcher. Stir to dissolve sweetener. Steep at room temperature for 2 hours or in refrigerator for 1-2 days. Strain ginger out and serve, or refrigerate for up to 1 week. Serves 4-6.