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What is Switchel?

Ginger is typically used in switchel.
Apple cider vinegar was most likely an ingredient in switchel.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 24 September 2014
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Switchel was perhaps the "original" Gatorade® — it was a refreshing, electrolyte laden drink originating in the 1600s in the West Indies. It has many different recipes, and became popular in Early America, especially among farmers. Over time, the origins of this specific beverage have been lost. It’s been attributed to the Amish, who still prepare it, but its use was likely widespread in the 17th, 18th, and early 19th century in farming communities across the US and its territories.

There are disagreements on the ingredients for switchel, which may also be called haymaker’s punch, or switzel. Most likely, the early drink was a combination of apple cider vinegar, water, molasses and possibly ginger for flavoring. Laura Ingalls Wilder calls it ginger-water in the book The Long Winter, and references how it quenched the thirst without upsetting the stomach after hot work making hay. Other recipes for switchel use honey instead of molasses, suggesting the drink may not be a new world invention, but may instead have existed first in Europe, prior to sugar, and the sugar byproduct molasses, being available. Another common variant is to add lemon juice to the beverage.

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There are many who still recall drinking switchel as they worked on farms, especially during the summer months. Some writers also again reference the Amish, who may serve the drink hot during the winter months. Most are more used to the cold version, and cite the sharp bite of vinegar and molasses paired with ginger as particularly refreshing when performing work in the hot sun. Gradually the drink became replaced with the various sports drinks available today, but some people still prepare and prefer switchel.

The main benefit of switchel, aside from the taste — which many cite as unusual but delicious — is that the ingredients are easy on the stomach. You could drink more switchel than water without getting sick. This made it easier to stave off dehydration. The famous Physician D. C. Jarvis, who made a version with honey called honegar, also touted the beverage as healthful. Jarvis was particularly famous for his writings on homeopathy, and his 1958 book Folk Medicine: A Vermont Country’s Guide to Good Health remained a bestseller for several years.

Jarvis claimed that vinegar had particular health benefits, which now are disputed by modern physicians. However, his advocacy for switchel or honegar kept the drink alive and familiar to many. He claimed the drink was particularly healthful and recommended it as a tonic to cure many ills.

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anon342171
Post 6

Been drinking it for years. We use maple syrup instead of sugar or molasses. It does the job in the hot summer hayfield.

anon299528
Post 5

@OeKc05: I made myself a liquid switchel mix. My honey bottle was half empty, so I filled it up the rest of the way with organic vinegar (I use Bragg's) and shook it until it was all well mixed. Then you can just pour out a couple teaspoons into your glass of cold water for a single serving, or a cupful into a gallon of water if you want a lot.

I don't like molasses, and have never tried ginger, but I adore the convenience of having the honey and vinegar all mixed up already. You could add ginger to the mix if you liked.

wavy58
Post 4

I have tweaked the original switchel recipe a bit to cater to my tastes. I use honey instead of molasses, and this makes a big difference to me.

My parents loved molasses growing up, but I hated even the smell of it. Honey is a great substitute, because it is thick and sweet yet not so heavy and rich.

I always use freshly ground ginger instead of the powdered kind. The flavor is much more intense that way. For the same reason, I use freshly squeezed lemon juice.

OeKc05
Post 3

I saw a switchel recipe that called for two cups of sugar to one gallon of water. That just sounds like way too much sugar for me!

Since I find overly sweet things nauseating, especially when I'm hot, I decided to cut the sugar down to one cup. The molasses did a fine job of sweetening things up on its own, so I really didn't even need that much sugar, but I found it to be pleasant.

It would be nice if I could buy a powdered switchel mix! I buy smoothie mixes all the time, and they are so convenient. If I could find a switchel mix, then I could make it up at any point during the day, because it would be so quick!

giddion
Post 2

@JackWhack – You might actually be pleasantly surprised if you tried this drink. The ginger really is soothing, so it keeps the other ingredients from nauseating you at all.

Another of my favorite drinks, chai spice tea, contains ginger, and I find it very enjoyable, too. It has a powerful taste, but it is soothing somehow.

Chai spice tea is usually made with milk, and it contains cinnamon and other powerful spices besides ginger. It would probably be a bit too overpowering to drink while doing yard work, so I only use switchel when I'm out in the sun.

JackWhack
Post 1

The switchel drink just sounds gross! I absolutely detest the smell of vinegar, so I can't imagine drinking anything in which it was one of the main ingredients.

I also hate the taste of molasses, so it is easy for me to see that this drink is not for me. I have no problem drinking modern day electrolyte drinks, because they are flavored like fruit. I'm glad that I don't actually need switchel when working out in the hot sun, because I would be out of luck!

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