What Is Switchel And What Does It Taste Like?

Have you ever heard of switchel? If not, it's time to get to know this puckery, refreshing drink. Switchel is a type of sweetened vinegar punch (via The Kitchn), which sounds weird until you consider that technically, lemonade is a type of sweetened acidic punch. Switchel is actually pretty similar to lemonade: a tart mixture of apple cider vinegar, a natural sweetener like molasses or maple syrup, fresh ginger, and water, it packs a thirst-quenching wallop, especially when served over ice (via The Kitchn). Also known as haymaker's punch, switchel has a long history in the United States, where it was supposedly sipped under the hot sun by colonial farmers as they cut grasses for hay (via the Old Farmer's Almanac). Switchel is easy to make at home and is a welcome addition to the arsenal of cooling summertime beverages, along with shrubs, punches, and all manner of 'ades. Let's take a look at this delicious, and historical, drink.

The history of switchel

According to the Old Farmer's Almanac, switchel has been known in the United States since colonial times. Sometimes referred to as "nature's Gatorade," switchel is typically defined as a mix of apple cider vinegar, ginger, and molasses, all of which contain the electrolyte potassium and help hydrate and boost energy. As such, it was supposedly prepared by hay farmers and lugged to the fields to sip throughout the day, in order to remain hydrated during a long, hot day of work.

As the Old Farmer's Almanac explains, switchel was known not only out on the fields, but within the hallowed halls of government, as well. It's said that both in the Senate and the House, a giant bowl of switchel would be set in the center of the room as figures such as John Randolph, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster debated and orated. Sometimes, the switchel was virgin, but more often, it was liberally doused with Jamaican rum.

"Members paused in their great speeches ... and going up to the great bowl, dipped deep," Almanac essayist Arthur Staples wrote in 1964. "Sometimes they paused glass in hand, to emphasize a telling sentence; sometimes they orated glass in hand and then drank deep and again stalked back majestically to their place with switchel under their belts."

How is switchel made?

Whether you're sipping it outside or inside, while making hay or while speechifying, switchel truly couldn't be any easier to make. A basic recipe from The Kitchn calls for apple cider vinegar, a natural sweetener such as molasses or maple syrup, fresh grated or dried ground ginger, and water. Stir the ingredients together, chill or pour over ice, and you've got switchel.

For this drink, what you'll taste most is the vinegar, so it's best to choose a high-quality, raw apple cider vinegar "with the mother," like Bragg's (via Food52). This will impart a lively zing to the drink, as well as providing some health benefits in the form of live probiotics. As for the sweetener, that's up to you; using molasses, combined with the ginger, will create a gingerbread-type flavor, while maple syrup and honey provide a more neutral taste. For a more mellow beverage, you can use dried ground ginger; for something zingier, choose the fresh, grated root. Finally, you can mix up switchel using plain water, or choose sparkling for a fizzy, effervescent tonic.

What does switchel taste like?

Due to its basic ingredients of vinegar and sweetener, switchel's taste actually resembles a number of more well-known beverages. If you've ever had a shrub, aka a drinking vinegar, you'll know that this mix of vinegar, fruit, and sugar tastes both sweet and acidic, very similar to the flavor of switchel (via Liquor). And of course, switchel is very similar to lemonade, relying on the same basic ingredients — acid, sweetener, and water — and, like lemonade, is tart, sweet, and refreshing all at once. 

Part of the fun of making switchel at home is that you can flavor it with a variety of fruits and aromatics. The internet is ripe with recipes for switchel variations, from blackberry to blueberry to pineapple-mango. In addition to ginger, you can toss some turmeric into your switchel, or add some basil for earthy herbaceousness. Basically, when it comes to switchel, your creativity is the limit.

Making boozy switchel

As you can see, switchel is pretty much endlessly customizable, and we haven't even started talking about booze yet. As referenced by the Old Farmer's Almanac, politicians in the colonial United States tended to consume switchel with massive amounts of Jamaican rum added, and most likely sweetened the tonic with molasses. These two ingredients would have been readily available due to the colonial sugar trade, which extracted the sweet stuff — via slavery — from massive plantations on the Caribbean islands (via Saveur).

Taking a cue from our esteemed antecedents (when it comes to the consumption of alcohol, at least) we consider it a very good idea to add booze to your switchel. According to a basic switchel cocktail recipe from Liquor, for each ounce of apple cider vinegar used in your drink, you can include an ounce of a spirit of your choice. We certainly like the idea of using dark rum for a ginger beer-style concoction; vodka would make a nice choice for a Moscow Mule-type situation; and gin would make a very summery addition.

Where to buy switchel

If you don't feel like making switchel at home when the craving hits, there are a couple of brands on the market. Up Mountain switchel was developed in Vermont and is now bottled in Brooklyn; shop varieties such as lemon, cayenne, and yerba mate online or look for them at Whole Foods. Vermont Switchel Company also sells its 12-ounce bottles online, as well as a concentrated syrup to which you can just add water or sparkling water. Based in Minnesota, Superior Switchel offers a variety of flavors including honey-cinnamon, orange-maple, and lavender-lemon; you can buy them online as well as at a variety of grocery stores, health food stores, and food co-ops. Even Bragg's, the mother of, well, apple cider vinegar "with the mother," makes its version of switchel, which you can find online and at grocery stores. Now that you know how to make it — and where to buy it — you have no excuse not to try this tart, refreshing drink.