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Homemade Switchel: The Energy Drink America Forgot

What began as a rural refreshment enjoyed by weary farmers at the end of a long day is making a comeback, thanks in part to a renewed interested in plant-based, low-sugar beverages that are easy to make at home. Switchel, known colloquially as “harvest drink”, “haymaker’s punch”, “ginger water”, and “Mother Hubbard’s sling”, has been hailed as a healthy alternative to sodas and sports drinks and is now available in local supermarkets for urban dwellers on the go. As the original American “health drink”, switchel–like kombucha– has come back into vogue with a force.

Not to be confused with a weak tea of the same name, switchel was often consumed by sailors and sealers towards the end of the 17th century. (The drink is believed to have originated in the Caribbean, arriving in the American colonies in the 1690’s.) By the 19th century, the drink had become a popular choice for farmers who drank it as an energy tonic during hay harvest season.

The ingredients in switchel are simple but nutrient-rich: molasses (or whatever sweetener is available), water, vinegar, ginger all provide an excellent dose of electrolytes in the form of potassium. Switchel was also used to ease stomach aches or as a tonic cap off a long night of drinking; American sailors drank switchel with rum to avoid scurvy, and they had notably less scurvy than their British counterparts.

Switchel remained a popular and acceptable drink through teetotaler protests and Prohibition due to the fermented flavor of vinegar and the fiery burn of ginger, which combine to mimic the taste of alcohol. In some places, oatmeal was soaked in switchel and eaten as a hearty snack.

Among traditional Switchel recipes, molasses was the most popular sweetener (and contains the most potassium) but it can be substituted for maple syrup, honey, or sugar– especially in the farmers market varieties that are slowly becoming popular in the Northeast, where honey is plentiful. As for the vinegar, apple cider vinegar is preferred due to its healthful properties– it is antibacterial, anti-fungal, and antiviral. (As a folk remedy, apple cider vinegar is often used to soothe a sore throat or relieve heartburn.) Ginger, as always, should be freshly grated, but dried ginger can be used in a pinch. With cold and flu season upon us, it’s worth remembering that several of the health-food world’s most popular tonics– like fire cider, kombucha, and switchel– can all be made using fresh ingredients from the pantry and garden.

In celebration of this simplicity, we’ve shared one of our favorite switchel recipes below– a classic dating back to the 1930’s, which was unearthed from the archives of The Old Farmer’s Almanac:

Classic Farmer’s Switchel

Ingredients

  • 1 gallon water
  • 1 ½ cups molasses
  • ⅓ cup vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger (ground)

Method

(As excerpted from the Almanac): “We like molasses, however, you could replace it with maple syrup, honey, or another sweetener. You could cut back the sweetener, too. Find the right balance for you. Remember to start with less—as you can always add more. Switchel shouldn’t coat your mouth; it should taste refreshing. Another idea is to add a teaspoon of fresh lemon or lime juice for zing.”

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