Russell Orchards, after picking up some of their excellent cider donuts, I noticed some plastic containers, next to the cider, which were labeled "Switchel." I wasn't familiar with the term and the drink seemed to be a mix of vinegar, cider and ginger. I bought a couple bottles to try at home and was later fascinated when I did some research on Switchel, which is becoming popular once again.
Switchel may be known by a number of other terms, including ginger-water, haymaker's punch, switchy, switzel, and swizzle. It is commonly a drink of water, vinegar (or cider vinegar), ginger, and a sweetener, which was originally molasses but nowadays may use honey, sugar, brown sugar or maple syrup. Other ingredients were also sometimes added, dependent on the location, including lemon juice and oatmeal.
The exact origins of switchel are unknown, though some sources allege it originated in the Caribbean, yet there doesn't appear to be much supporting evidence in favor of that theory. The main ingredients, ginger and molasses, do come from the Caribbean, but from different parts of that region and generally didn't come together. However, once those ingredients were exported to Colonial America, it seems they finally were combined together. If anything, the basic concept of combining fruit juices, spices, and other ingredients, to make punches and other drinks might have originated in the Caribbean but switchel itself appears to be more an American invention.
It is thought switchel started becoming popular in New England during the 17th century. It spread throughout the country, eventually becoming a favorite of hot and thirsty farmers, including some during hay harvest time, leading to it becoming known as haymaker's punch. Switchel was mentioned by a number of popular writers, from Herman Melville to Laura Ingalls Wilder. One of the earliest written mentions of switchel is in a poem from 1789. It is also said that in early 19th century Massachusetts, students at Harvard University loved to drink switchel and rum, though temperance advocates thought switchel on its own was a good substitute for an alcoholic drink. Combining switchel with alcohol, especially rum, seemed to be popular in many places, and not just Harvard.
The Switchel from Russell Orchards costs $3.95 for a 12 ounce plastic bottle, and is made with apple cider vinegar, apple cider, maple syrup, ginger and water, with the vinegar and cider made on their premises. It is unpasteurized so needs to be refrigerated and does have a sell by date. There is a distinctive ginger aroma from the switchel and on the palate, it is dry with a prominent vinegar aspect, subtle apple notes, and a ginger backbone. It is refreshing and I see how it can be quite refreshing on a hot day. It would also work well as a cocktail ingredient, and I'll be trying that very soon.
Next time you visit Russell Orchards for their superb cider donuts, why not pick up some Switchel too.