Switchel – Early American Sports Drink

Hi.  Winnie Griggs here.
I came across a reference to something called switchel the other day, with a note that it was a vinegar based drink that early American farmer’s used as a thirst quencher. Vinegar based drink?

My nose immediately wrinkled at the thought. Was it a medicinal tonic of some sort? But no, it seemed it was imbibed as a refreshment. I found myself intrigued by such an odd sounding beverage, so I did in some follow-up research.

It turns out this unusual drink mixture was actually quite popular in the early days of our country. One can loosely compare it to lemonade. Think about the sour/sweet taste of those citric drinks. Before refrigeration, citrus fruits such as lemons and limes weren’t readily available, and even when they were, it was only a narrow window of time. An inexpensive and more abundant source of that acidic bite was vinegar.

Even with today’s modern equipment,  farmers and ranchers work up powerful thirsts while harvesting hay and doing other field work (my rancher husband will attest to that!!). One can only imagine how much more dehydrating it was to work the fields by hand with scythes.

Although the recipes varied by region, most versions contain water, a sweetening agent (such as honey, molasses, brown sugar or maple syrup), cider vinegar and ginger. With the exception of the water, each of these ingredients are sources of potassium, which is an electrolyte. In fact, one of the articles I read called it an early-day Gatorade because of the very high concentration of electrolytes.

Though I’ve personally never heard of it until this, I understand switchel – also called Haymaker’s Punch or Harvest Beer – is still popular in some areas of the country today.

While I was researching this, I came across a few vintage recipes and I thought I’d share some of them with you

1855
From Practical American Cookery and Domestic Economy
Harvest Drink.
Mix with five gallons of good water, half a gallon of molasses, one quart of vinegar, and two ounces of powdered ginger. This will make not only a

very pleasant beverage, but one highly invigorating and healthful.

1869
From Domestic Cookery
Harvest Beer
To make fifteen gallons of beer, put into a keg three pints of yeast, three pints of molasses, and two gallons of cold water;, mix it well and let it stand a few minutes; then take three quarts of molasses and three gallons of boiling water, with one ounce of ginger; mix them well and pour into the keg, and fill it up with cold water. A decoction of root of sassafras is good to put in beer.

1877
From Buckeye Cookery
Grandmother’s Harvest Drink
(mix together) One quart of water, tablespoon sifted ginger, three heaping tablespoons sugar, half pint vinegar.

So, have you ever tasted this odd sounding (to me at least) beverage?  Do you have a family recipe for it?  Or are you like me, totally unfamiliar with the drink?

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Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
Winnie loves to hear from readers. You can connect with her on facebook at www.facebook.com/WinnieGriggs.Author or email her at winnie@winniegriggs.com.

22 thoughts on “Switchel – Early American Sports Drink”

  1. Interesting stuff. I’ve never heard of it but think I might try some. My kids are always screaming I’m thirsty. Maybe a glass of this will quench their thirst for five minutes, lol. Thanks for the recipe.

  2. Thanks for the information, Winnie! I have not heard of switchel. When I saw it was made with vinegar my nose wrinkled, but after reading the recipes I wonder if it wouldn’t be more like a cidar with as you mentioned the vinegar just adding acidity. Might have to try whipping up a batch sometime just for research sake.

  3. Fascinating, Winnie. In this age when we can just go to the store, we forget how resourceful our ancestors had to be.
    I’ve known people who made homemade rootbeer, but I think they bought the mix. Aside from that, no I’ve never tried this stuff. Not sure I’d want to.
    🙂

  4. Elizabeth – my mom used to make homemade root beer using the extract – we kids all thought it was sooooo good!

    Mary – LOL you do me too much credit 🙂 I’ll plead my excuse as being I didn’t have all the ingrediants handy

  5. Can’t say that I ever knew of this but will have to ask the oldest of the old farmers near me to see if they remember it and look through my mother-in-law’s cookbooks to see if she ever made anything like it.

  6. Thanks for another interesting post. It actually sounds pretty good. I might try it this summer. It get so hot and humid we go through lots of Gatorade.
    We made homemade root beer when I was a kid, but not many times. We spent one summer night listening to the caps pop off the bottles from the brew working.

    Another fun experience we had with our children was while we were camping in Mammoth Lake National Park. They have springs of naturally carbonated water. We would put powdered drink mix in the pitcher and hike to the spring to mix it with the water. A natural carbonated beverage – lemon soda, or what ever other flavor we used. It was great fun for us all. Cool and refreshing.

    Thanks for the recipes. Interesting how different they are. I like the first, but will have to cut it down.

  7. I’ve heard of something similar and it’s suppose to be good for your system and promote weight loss – a mixture of honey and vinegar and water. My husband tried it but couldn’t stand it lol. I never tried haha.

  8. Connie – Sounds like the research bug has hit you too 🙂 Let us know what you find out

    Patricia – You’re welcome! And your memories of your times camping as a child sound priceless.

  9. catslady – that does sound very similar, but none of my research pointed to any weight loss benefits. Sounds like it might be an acquired taste 🙂

    Patti – thanks for stopping by – glad you enjoyed the post

  10. Winnie, what a great, informative post. I love finding something through research that is totally an unspected surprise! I’ve never heard of it, but it kinda makes me think of the new energy drinks that are so popular today. Interesting. Thanks for sharing. Hugs, P

  11. This is so interesting, Winnie. I’d never heard of this drink. I don’t think I’ll be trying it though. Just sounds too unpalatable. Still, it’d be fun to put into a story. I’ll have to be sure and remember this. Thanks.

  12. Phyliss – thanks! And yes, the high electrolyte make-up makes it very similar (in effect anyway) to a sports drink.

    Linda – yep, I think this may just
    show up in a story one day 🙂

  13. I have made it—once. Was definitely not popular with my kids. We were trying out some recipes we had found when we were looking up some information on pioneer living. We also found a switchel recipe in “Putting Food By” a modern food preservation resource book. The kids decided there is a reason for some of the changes in our food and beverage preferences!

  14. I used Grandmothers Harvest because the grocery store was out of molasses. My baby liked it, my seven year old vehemently did not and all the adults thought not bad. I’m going to try again with molasses and probably a little less vinegar. I’m not a big fan of citrusy drinks do that made it a little too tart for me. I’ll let you know how the next batch turns out!!

  15. Erin, Thanks for letting me know! Interesting that the reactions varied by age. And how adventurous of you to want to continue experimenting with the mix 🙂

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