After a tough gym session, a yoga workout or a vigorous hike, you may reach for a canned electrolyte sports drink to rehydrate. Back in 17th Century New England, USA, after a hard day’s work in the hay fields, Switchel was the drink of choice. Otherwise known as ‘Haymakers Punch’, Switchel tastes similar to homemade ginger beer but is not fizzy. It has a hot kick not dissimilar to alcohol but is made with vinegar, like a Shrub. It can be drunk hot as a winter warmer or cold over ice as a thirst quencher. Switchel generally has only four ingredients, water, apple cider vinegar, a sweetener and ginger. The ingredients are natural and readily available and contain no artificial colours or preservatives.
Depending upon the ingredients you choose, switchel can contain vitamins, glucose, antioxidants and electrolytes lost after heavy exertion (e.g. potassium, magnesium, and calcium), which is why it is widely touted as a good substitute for sports/energy drinks as well as plain old soft drinks. In my opinion, it also makes a particularly good mixer for rum and whiskey. The ginger and apple cider vinegar are great for settling an upset stomach and a warm ginger and honey combination helps ease a sore throat. Every recipe I have seen uses different ratios and combinations of ingredients, but that’s the real beauty of the drink. You can mix and match depending on what you have or can sustainably source locally and fit the taste to suit your preferences.
For me, the real charm of drinking a Switchel is that I feel I am partaking in a tradition enjoyed by farmers in bygone days. Somehow that makes the drink taste that much better when I sit down and sip a glass after a long day in the garden. Switchels have a long and interesting history. They were referenced in Herman Melville’s short story ‘I and my Chimney’ and received a notable mention by Laura Ingalls Wilder in ‘The Long Winter from the “Little House on the Prairie” series, “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. Ginger-water would not make them sick, as plain cold water would when they were so hot.” If like me you are weirdly fascinated by the background of traditional foods and drinks, there is a great article on the history of Switchels and Shrubs here that is definitely worth a read.
Sadly, despite their interesting history, Switchels declined in popularity with the advent of refrigeration, widespread availability of potable water and the convenience of canned and powdered soft drinks, although recipes were still handed down in some families. In recent years, the drink has regained some popularity in the US and has become commercially available through companies such as the Vermont Switchel Company, Up mountain Switchel and Cide Road Switchel. I’m glad, as being a Brit living in Australia, were it not for the publicity and the world-wide web I would not have tried this delicious traditional drink or learned about its history.
How to make a Switchel
There are no hard and fast rules with Switchel ingredients, so my advice is just to experiment with the basic recipe and work out what combination works best for you. Three of the four ingredients I grow, collect or make on my property and even the sweetener I buy unpackaged and unprocessed locally. I read and tried dozens online then came up with my own variation, so it’s hard to attribute this recipe to any particular source. Be warned, I like my Switchel strong and zingy with a kick, so if you prefer a more subtle drink you may wish to use a higher ratio of water to other ingredients.
The main choices of sweetener are the traditional black-strap molasses, honey, maple syrup or some combination of them. I suppose you could also use sugar for a similar effect, but it would obviously make it a lot less healthy.
– Blackstrap molasses is rich in iron, calcium, copper, magnesium, manganese, potassium and selenium, but also has the highest glycemic index of the three options, and quite frankly I hate the taste of it. Even when using only half molasses and adding a different sweetener I found the flavour to be utterly overpowering.
– Maple syrup contains antioxidants, riboflavin, zinc, magnesium, calcium and potassium and is lower in calories and fructose than honey. It also makes a pretty delicious Switchel either alone or in combination with honey. Unfortunately, maple syrup is not available locally here, so given my quest to become self-sufficient it’s just not a good option for us.
– Honey in my opinion made the tastiest Switchel. It contains no fat, is a source of Vitamin C and B6 and contains three times the amount of riboflavin of maple syrup (but less minerals). The product is available locally by the kilo here, so it is by far the most sustainable option for us. The only downside of using honey is that every time I make a Switchel, I wind up with a house full of bees! As you can see from the photo above, I couldn’t even take a photo of my Switchels without a bee making a guest appearance.
* Please note that although molasses, honey and maple syrup are healthier alternatives to sugar and have other benefits, they are best used in moderation to avoid over consumptions of sugars and calories. Consequently, no matter how much you like a Switchel, you don’t want to be sitting on your sofa quaffing litres of the stuff daily.
Ginger is a superfood with high nutritional value. It is a good source of Vitamin C, Magnesium, Potassium, Copper and Manganese and has a huge range of purported health benefits. Traditionally, ground ginger was used to make Switchel as it was more readily available. It offers are more mellow taste and is more convenient than fresh as you don’t need to sieve the Switchel before drinking. I much prefer the refreshing zing of fresh ginger and we grow it in the garden so it’s the perfect choice for me.
I always use homemade raw apple cider vinegar in my Switchel as I make it myself so have it on hand. I am sure that you could use other types of vinegar if required. The benefit of using raw apple cider vinegar is that it contains Calcium, iron, sodium, potassium, malic acid and pectin. When selecting vinegar as with most things the less processed the better it is for you, so look for cloudy stuff with floaters (the ‘mother of vinegar’) rather than crystal clear versions.
Some recipes add lemon juice, which I incorporate in some batches and leave out in others. You could also potentially use lemon juice instead of vinegar. I haven’t tried this so can’t offer an opinion on taste, but will likely do so eventually as we always have spare lemons here. I have seen recipes that include oatmeal, again not something I have experimented with, as I find the thought of it pretty revolting, but everyone has different tastes so I’m sure it will appeal to some. If using Switchel to rehydrate you may also want to add some salt, I have tried this in the past and couldn’t detect it but I would suggest adding it carefully at the end to taste.
This is the recipe I use and it makes about 500ml (I often double it and make a litre batch at a time). I make it one day and drink the next then make a new batch when needed.
– 2 cups water
– 4 tbsp raw honey or maple syrup (traditional recipes use molasses but I am NOT a fan)
– 4 tbsp apple cider vinegar
– 1-2 tablespoons of grated raw ginger or powdered ginger
– 2 tablespoons lemon juice
Step 1. Combine all ingredients (apart from salt) in a jar
Step 2. Screw lid on jar, shake to combine the ingredients then leave in the fridge for 6-24 hours for the flavours to develop
Step 3. Shake the jar then taste. Add more lemon juice or sweetner if required then shake again to make sure any additional ingredients are combined. Sieve through cheesecloth or nut milk bag into a glass or drinking bottle.
Step 4. Serve. I like mine straight from the fridge over ice with a slice of lemon…and if I have it a generous dash of rum.
Hope you enjoyed the recipe, if you give it a try or have any tips on switchels I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
- 2 cups water
- 4 tbsp raw honey or maple syrup (traditional recipes use molasses but I am NOT a fan)
- 4 tbsp apple cider vinegar
- 1-2 tablespoons of grated raw ginger or powdered ginger
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- Combine all ingredients (apart from salt) in a jar
- Screw lid on jar, shake to combine the ingredients then leave in the fridge for 6-24 hours for the flavours to develop
- Shake the jar then taste. Add more lemon juice or sweetner if required then shake again to make sure any additional ingredients are combined. Sieve through cheesecloth or nut milk bag into a glass or drinking bottle.
- Serve. I like mine straight from the fridge over ice with a slice of lemon…and if I have it a generous dash of rum.