Most people these days reach for a sports drink or “smart” water after a good workout or an afternoon of yard work.
But there was a time when the thirst-quenching beverage of choice was a drink called switchel. A bracing blend of water, maple syrup or molasses, ginger and cider vinegar, switchel is what 17th-century Colonists cooled off with in summer, and what farmers in the 19th century quaffed during the dry, hot days of the hay harvest. It was especially associated with Shaker communities across the country.
Switchel, also known as switzel or haymaker’s punch, is believed to have originated in the West Indies and may have derived from a 15th-century vinegar-based drink called Oxymel. These vinegar-based drinks essentially served the same purpose as lemonade at a time when neither drinking water nor fresh lemons were easy to come by.
Eventually, switchel went the way of dandelion wine, honey punch and other old-time home brews, a victim, presumably, of the rise of soft drinks, refrigeration, potable water and powdered lemonade mix.
Now, however, switchel is experiencing something of a revival, thanks in part to two small-batch producers, both with roots in Vermont, who have begun bottling and selling the drink.
Susan Alexander launched The Vermont Switchel Company, in Cabot, in 2011.
Last year, New Yorkers Ely Key and Garrett Riffle started Switchel LLC, also in Vermont, though they brew their beverage in Brooklyn. Between the two producers, bottles of switchel now can be found from the Northeast Kingdom to Bushwick.
“I knew from the first time I tasted it that I wanted to bottle it,” says Alexander.
That first taste came at a family reunion 27 years ago. Alexander was born and raised in upstate New York, but her husband is a seventh-generation Vermonter who comes from a line of dairy farmers. It was his sister who suggested mixing up “a batch of Grampy’s switchel.”
“I had never heard of it, but it struck me right away as something pure and simple and effective,” Alexander says, not only for its bright flavor and thirst-quenching ability but also for the nutritional value—molasses, maple syrup and cider vinegar are all good sources of potassium, and molasses and vinegar are good sources of calcium.
The history behind the drink also appealed to her.
“Some of the early recipes also included oatmeal,” Alexander says. “Farmers would put a handful of it in their jar of switchel. Throughout the day they would drink the liquid off the top. The oatmeal would get soggy and sweet from sitting in the jar all day long. That would give them sustenance.”
Two careers and two kids later, Alexander finally decided the time was right. She started with the family recipe and tweaked it again and again, substituting fresh ginger for ground, adding a little lemon juice and using local ingredients whenever possible.
Alexander brews her switchel at the Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick, a food business incubation service with a mission to support the state’s agricultural economy and local food network. She began selling at farmers’ markets and is now distributing 30 cases per week in Vermont and into New Hampshire. She says demand is such that she could easily triple that amount.
“There’s a small percentage of people who turn up their noses at it because they find it too acidic, or they don’t like the ‘burn’ from the ginger,” Alexander says. “But most people who try it love it. They say it really grows on you.” She adds, “There’s a sense that what worked for our ancestors can still work for us.”
Friends Ely Key and Garrett Riffle say their switchel has met with similar enthusiasm since they first started bottling and selling it just over a year ago. “It definitely has an emotional appeal,” says Key, 28. “It’s a nod to the American farmer and to a lifestyle that people respect.”
Key was born in New York and raised both in the city and on his family’s farm in Vermont, where his father was a county extension agent in Bennington and his mother a landscape designer.
His business plan, however, was hatched in California, where he was working as an agriculture consultant on a lemon and avocado farm. Riffle, 26, another transplanted (upstate) New Yorker, had become interested in food by watching the TV show “No Reservations.” He was in California doing a variety of food-related jobs, from bar tending and waiting tables in restaurants to agricultural consulting. He and Key met at a Christmas party and bonded immediately over their mutual interest in agriculture and food (not to mention their shared devotion to the late New York rapper Big L).
Back east, they brainstormed on how to break into the food business in a way that would support American agriculture. It was Ely’s father who suggested switchel, which he remembered drinking as a youth. “That was it,” says Riffle. “That was our ‘aha’ moment.”
The two source their cider vinegar from New York’s Finger Lakes region, where Riffle is from, and their maple syrup from Vermont. Most of their ginger root comes from Hawaii. Key says this ginger is a deeper yellow than other varieties, thanks to its high level of curcumin, an anti-inflammatory. Key estimates that they go through 60 to 90 pounds of ginger per week.
“We do everything by hand,” he says. “We chop the ginger by knife and we use cheese bags to brew everything.” The two are now distributing about 100 cases of switchel per week, to farmers’ markets, shops and high-end restaurants from southern Vermont to New York City. They also sell their drink online.
Both companies are working to keep up with demand, with an eye toward growth.
“Right now we’re focused on getting our business under control,” says Key, “and then we’d like to move on to different flavors.”
Alexander recently received a $15,000 grant from the state of Vermont’s Working Lands Enterprise Fund to buy new bottling equipment that will help her expand and allow for online sales. She is also vetting distributors so she can focus on growing the business. “It’s going to be a huge summer for us.”
This recipe is cobbled together from a number of different sources. Adjust the amount of sweetener, cider vinegar and ginger to suit your own taste.
- 6 cups cold water
- 1/2 to 3/4 cup maple syrup
- 1/4 cup molasses
- 1/4 cup cider vinegar
- Freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon, plus lemon slices for garnish
- 2 tablespoons grated ginger root
Measure all of the ingredients into a pitcher or a jug and stir until well blended. Adjust seasonings as desired. Refrigerate until cold. Serve over ice, garnished with lemon slices.
This unusual but appealing drink was served at the opening night party at the 2013 Food Book Fair, which was held at the Brooklyn Brewery. If you don't have access to this local brand, simply substitute your favorite ale and stout.
- 2 ounces Brooklyn Brown Ale
- 1 1/2 ounces switchel
- 1 ounce black chocolate stout
- Lime wedge
In a glass, stir together the brown ale and switchel. Top with the stout and garnish with the lime wedge.