On these hot summer days, it’s critical to stay hydrated, a task that lots of modern-day Mainers do by gulping glasses of water or bottles of electrolyte-rich sports drinks.
A few, though, are eschewing neon-colored Gatorade and choosing a more old-fashioned beverage instead: switchel. The fermented drink, which is also known by the name haymaker’s punch, is traditionally made with cider vinegar, molasses or maple syrup, ginger and water. And if you were haying in hot summer fields 100 or 200 years ago, it probably would have been your drink of choice.
“It’s basically an electrolyte replacement,” Sherry Davis, the executive director of the Maine Forest and Logging Museum at Leonard’s Mills in Bradley, said of the drink. “It’s the early version of Gatorade. … It’s much better for you and less expensive than Gatorade.”
Back then, farmers were likely to have a stoneware jug of switchel tucked away in the shade or cooling in a stream, waiting for them to put down their scythes and have a break from long days of haying and other work in the field. Switchel was easy to make, Davis said, and has health benefits that might not have been completely understood by the farmers of yore but would have been appreciated nonetheless. Ginger is an anti-inflammatory, raw apple cider vinegar can soothe tummy troubles and molasses is high in potassium, an electrolyte.
“It would be more refreshing than water,” she said of the drink. “They probably went through a lot of it.”
The origins of switchel are somewhat obscure, according to a 2010 article published by Smithsonian.com. Some people believe it was brought to the colonies from the West Indies, while others give the credit to Amish communities, where switchel continues to be enjoyed today. Or it may be more ancient than that, and be related to oxymel, the medicinal mixture of water, honey and vinegar that dates back to Hippocrates, writer Lisa Bramen suggested.
Whatever its history, switchel is a drink that is finding modern-day fans. Fermented foods and drinks are popular now, Davis said, and switchel is riding that wave. Bartenders at trendy bars in Brooklyn, New York, Portland, Oregon and Washington, D.C. are using it as mixers in hip cocktails.
“All of a sudden people are making these fermented things. It’s like they’ve just discovered fermentation,” she said. “But switchel is a really neat idea, and it really works as a drink.”
Switchel can be purchased in stores around the state, with a Vermont-based company, Up Mountain Switchel, selling its maple syrup-sweetened switchel at Buck’s Harbor Market in Brooksville, Uncle Dean’s Good Groceries in Waterville and A&B Naturals in Bar Harbor. New Jersey-based CideRoad Switchel is widely available at stores throughout Maine, including the Natural Living Center in Bangor, the Blue Hill Co-op, Deer Root Farm in Appleton, Spice of Life in Skowhegan, Bath Natural Market and Royal River Natural Foods in Freeport. JK’s Farmhouse Ciders of Michigan offers a non-alcoholic switchel for sale at locations including the Belfast Co-op.
But it isn’t hard to make at home, either. The internet is full of recipes for the tangy summer drink, and Davis is happy to share the version that some summer visitors to Leonard’s Mills have sampled. She does have advice for the home cook — don’t stint on water, which is necessary to disperse the “molasses gob” that can settle at the bottom.
“I’ve made some really awful switchel, myself. It can be pretty intense, and it definitely wants to be cold,” she said. “But in this kind of heat, it’d be a good idea for people to have a jug of switchel around.”
Yields 4-6 servings
1 cup sugar
½ cup molasses
½ cup cider vinegar
½ teaspoon ginger
At least 6 cups of water
Mix it all together, and serve it cold.
Recipe courtesy of Maine Forest & Logging Museum at Leonard’s Mills in Bradley.
Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.