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
From Practical American Cookery and Domestic Economy
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.
From Domestic Cookery
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.
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?