Nowadays, if you’re feeling thirsty on a hot day, you might reach for an ice-cold soda or sports drink to hydrate. But what did people drink before there was soda? They reached for a jar full of switchel. But what the heck is it?
Switchel: The 18th Century Sports Drink
Throughout the 1700s and into the early 1900s, switchel was the drink of choice when you needed something to quench your thirst. In fact, people often referred to it as “haymaker’s punch” because there were few things more refreshing when you were hard at work tending your fields. Today, even though this traditional beverage still lives on in a few Amish communities, switchel is something that few people have heard of. Luckily for us, this nearly forgotten beverage is starting to make a comeback!
Historians don’t agree on exactly where switchel came from. Some say that the Amish brought it with them when they came to the United States. Others believe that switchel originated in China or the Caribbean.
No matter where its origins lie, however, all switchel recipes have a few common ingredients: water, apple cider vinegar, ginger, and a sweetener. Traditionally, switchel was sweetened with molasses, but throughout history, people have also used maple syrup, honey, and brown sugar.
But why the vinegar? Some historians suppose that the vinegar serves as a substitute for alcohol since vinegar is essentially wine that has gone bad. It could also be that switchel was a substitute for lemonade, but since the colonial New Englanders that popularized this drink didn’t have lemons, they used vinegar instead, for tartness.
Although we aren’t sure where switchel came from, we do know that colonial farmers believed that drinking hot drinks while working in the Sun was good for you, helping you keep a balanced body temperature in relation to the heat outside. The problem was that no one actually wanted to drink a hot beverage on a hot day. For that reason, alcohol was a popular beverage because it created the same “heat” sensation as it went down. Similarly, the ginger in switchel causes a mild feeling of warmth when consumed, and that made this drink popular among farmers tending their fields under the scorching sun.
Is Switchel Good For You?
Although it tastes something like a tart soda, switchel is much better for you than any bottled soft drink. Each ingredient (except for the water) is high in potassium – especially molasses. Because potassium is an electrolyte, it replaces those lost as you sweat.
On top of the electrolytes, each ingredient also comes with vitamins, minerals, and natural sugars, making switchel a much better option than a bottle of pop or a sports drink.
How to Make Switchel
All switchel recipes contain apple cider vinegar and ginger, either fresh or dried. After that, you’ll have some choices. Use plain water or add some fizz with sparkling water. And, no matter which sweetener you choose – molasses, maple syrup, honey or brown sugar – you can tweak the amounts depending on whether you like your switchel tangy or mild.
Then there are the extras. Many people love to add a little bit of lemon juice. Other popular flavorings include orange zest, mint and berry flavors.
If you’re ready to try switchel for yourself, you can get started with this basic recipe:
1 cup water (or sparkling water, or coconut water)
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon or lime juice
2 teaspoons molasses or honey to taste
1/4 teaspoon ground or fresh ginger
Mix all of the ingredients (plus any other flavorings) together and let the switchel steep for at least a couple of hours so that the ginger flavor infuses the beverage. Then pour it over some ice in a mason jar, garnish with lemon slices, mint, or anything else you’d like, and enjoy!
The greatest thing about switchel (besides the refreshing taste and healthy ingredients) is that it’s so versatile. You can make it by the cup or by the pitcher, all while tweaking the recipe in any way you like. However you choose to make it, switchel is one tradition worth trying!