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    Thursday, July 18, 2024

    Switchel, a nonalcoholic drink dating to antiquity, is a refreshing way to cool off

    It’s not surprising that on sweltering days, we turn to lemons for refreshment. A perfect lemon is a work of art, with its taste, aroma and spectacular good looks glowing as brightly as the sun against a brilliantly blue sky. Mix some of that sunshine with sugar and water, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a beverage.

    Apple cider vinegar, on the other hand, is a murky brown puddle swirling with moldy flecks that tastes like it wants you dead. I can understand why it’s not something most people reach for when they’re thirsty.

    Maybe this is why we’ve all but forgotten about switchel, which is unfortunate. Sure, vinegar might not have the sex appeal of lemons, but it’s tart and tasty just the same. Plus it doesn’t require you to squeeze a whole sack of fruit on the road to refreshment — if you can open a bottle, you can have a pitcher of switchel ready to go in mere minutes.

    Also known as harvest drink, harvest beer, haymakers punch and — my personal favorite — “swanky,” switchel is a New World take on a basic beverage that’s been around for millennia. Ancient Greeks mixed vinegar, honey and water to make oxymel; ancient Romans did the same to make posca, as did ancient Persians to make sikanjabîn. As a byproduct of spoiled food, vinegar has always been cheap and plentiful in every corner of the world, and its usefulness went far beyond flavor.

    “Water of the time was often undrinkable, spoiled by dangerous bacteria,” writes Michael Dietch in his book “Shrubs.” “Spiking water with soured wine was a way to sterilize the water while reusing wine that would otherwise be wasted.”

    What makes switchel unique in the pantheon of vinegar-based beverages is its use of ginger, which balances the aggressive tartness and sugary sweetness with a surprising, spicy kick. (Shrubs, on the other hand, tend to rely on fruit for their flavoring.) As is the case with most informal “recipes” of antiquity, no one can state its origins with 100 percent certainty, but it’s believed that the basic combination of water, vinegar, ginger and sweetener most likely originated on West Indian sugar cane plantations, where it was made with molasses.

    Through the sugar cane trade, sailors brought the drink from the Caribbean to the rum-distilling capital of the colonies — Boston — where it quickly became popular with farmers, laborers and anyone else doing backbreaking work under summer sun. As switchel crept across the country, people adapted the recipe with whatever sweetener was cheap and plentiful: maple syrup to the north, sorghum to the south and honey to the west.

    Early America’s infatuation with switchel wasn’t just because of its flavor — it was also “science.” Back in the colonial era, people believed that it was dangerous to drink water to cool off on a hot day, and not because of bacteria or pathogens (of which there were plenty). If the body was hot outside, it made sense for it to be hot inside as well, or else who knows what could happen? Hysteria? Demonic possession? Spontaneous combustion?

    Even if switchel was cool, it tasted fiery enough to keep the body and its humors in balance. Prior to its existence, farmhands working the fields would “hydrate” with rum, which, while cheap enough at the time, was bad for productivity. Bosses loved that switchel kept their beverage budget down and kept their employees from hootin’, hollerin’ and whatever else goes down when you mix 100-proof spirits with heat and farming equipment.

    Though colonial science may have been wrong about why, precisely, switchel is so refreshing, there is certainly a scientific reason as to why hard-working people simply couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Unbeknownst to them (but beknownst to us), vinegars and natural sweeteners are sources of potassium, an electrolyte that helps bodies stay hydrated.

    Switchel is essentially old-timey Gatorade.

    Just as with lemonade, iced tea and most other beverages meant for a big pitcher, the formula for switchel is a matter of personal taste. After making the basic recipe, take a sip and see if it’s to your liking. Too tart? Add a bit more sweetener. Too sweet? Add a bit more vinegar. Too much everything? Add more water. And if you accidentally add too much water, just add more vinegar and sweetener.

    Also like lemonade and iced tea, switchel is highly customizable and is practically begging you to put your own fun spin on it. You can substitute some of the water with juice, such as apple, or fruit puree, such as peach or mango. Once you’ve tasted it with molasses, try it with honey, maple syrup or another flavorful sweetener, and see which one’s flavors speak to you. Add some herbs, such as thyme, or other exciting accents, such as citrus zest. Even lemons — switchel’s greatest rival — are welcome to join the party. There’s no time for acidic animosities when there are beautiful sunny days to enjoy.


    Total time: 10 minutes

    Serves 6 (makes 6 3/4 cups)

    Sweet and tart, switchel, also known as haymaker’s punch, is essentially lemonade’s half-sibling, without all the squeezing. Made with fresh ginger and cider vinegar instead of freshly squeezed fruit, this nonalcoholic beverage comes together in a fraction of the time and is just as customizable. Use this recipe as a guideline, adding more sweetener, vinegar or water to taste. We have included two fruity options in the Variations, below.

    Storage note: Refrigerate for up to 1 week.


    6 cups water, divided, plus more as needed

    1/2 cup light brown sugar, plus more as needed

    1/4 cup molasses

    2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger

    1/2 cup apple cider vinegar (filtered or unfiltered), plus more as needed


    In a medium pot over high heat, or in a kettle, bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Transfer to a heatproof pitcher, then add the sugar, molasses and ginger. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, then add the remaining 4 cups of water and the vinegar. Taste, and add more sugar, vinegar and/or water as desired. Serve right away, over ice, or refrigerate until needed.


    Instead of molasses, try maple syrup, honey or sorghum syrup.

    Instead of brown sugar, you can use granulated sugar or monk fruit sweetener.


    To make a peach switchel: In a blender, puree one (16-ounce) bag of defrosted frozen peaches, or about 3 cups of chopped fresh peaches, with 2 cups of water until smooth. You should get about 4 cups of puree; if you end up with less, add just enough water to yield 4 cups total.

    Then follow the base recipe, using honey in place of molasses and the peach puree instead of the 4 cups of water. Stir in the puree at the same time you add the vinegar.

    To make an apple switchel: Follow the base recipe, replacing the molasses with maple syrup. After you add the 2 cups boiling water, stir in only 1 additional cup of water, along with the vinegar and 3 cups of apple juice (any type).

    Nutritional facts per serving (about 1 cup) | Calories: 113; Fat: 0 g; Saturated Fat: 0 g; Carbohydrates: 28 g; Sodium: 11 mg; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Protein: 0 g; Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 28 g

    This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.

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