Switchel: Drinking Vinegar to Stay Cool

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Make hay while the sun shines, the saying goes. But what's good for the haying is not always so comfortable for the haymaker. Even today, using modern equipment, farmers are liable to work up a powerful thirst out in the fields. Just think how much thirstier a job it was for Colonial-era haying teams, when the grass was hand-cut with a scythe. Sports drinks weren't around yet to help them rehydrate and replace electrolytes—not that anyone even knew what an electrolyte was at the time (they weren't discovered until the mid-19th century), or that they needed to be replaced after sweaty exertion.

They drank a quenching beverage that functioned much like modern Gatorade: switchel, also called switzel or haymaker's punch. It contained water, a sweetener—either molasses, maple syrup, honey or brown sugar—ginger, and cider vinegar. All the ingredients (except water) happen to be sources of potassium—an electrolyte. Molasses is especially high in potassium.

The origins of the drink are fuzzy. Some sources say it was brought to the colonies from the West Indies. Others credit it to Amish communities, who still serve it. It may also be related to oxymel, the medicinal mixture of water, honey and vinegar that dates back to Hippocrates.

Vinegar sounds like a strange ingredient for a beverage, but think about how refreshing a sweet-sour glass of lemonade is. Vinegar provided a similar tanginess at a time when citrus fruits were not widely available to the average American farmer. According to an article at Vermont's Local Banquet, the 18th-century understanding of physiology assumed that hot drinks were healthier for refreshment while working in the sun, in order to maintain the body's equilibrium with the weather. Alcohol was put in that category because of the sensation of heat it produces going down. The spicy ginger in switchel mimicked the burn of alcohol, making it a popular choice during the temperance movement of the turn of the century.

The vinegar-and-ginger concoction apparently elicited mixed reviews. The above article quotes the 1853 journal of a young man in Woodstock, Vermont, who wrote: "To morrow I’m going to work for Chas Raymond a haying $1 worth, … He made a mixture of water, molasses & vinegar, for drink, and some I took, sickened me so that I stopped and didn’t work for an hour."

But others must have liked it, and another article, at Art of Drink, conjectures one reason: alcohol eventually turns to vinegar, and people probably continued to drink wine or other alcohol past its prime. Drinking vinegar didn't seem so strange.

Another category of old-time refreshers, called shrubs, also contain vinegar, as well as fruit juice and sometimes alcohol. The name probably comes from the Arabic word for drink.

I first heard of switchel a couple of years ago, when I helped copyedit a cookbook (they preferred to call it a "food book") for North Country Public Radio that included three recipes for the old-time refreshment. But I forgot about it until this weekend, when it was served at a "farm-to-fork" festival in my area. Although I couldn't make it to the festival, I decided to try mixing up a batch at home to see if the drink tasted as weird as it sounded. I tried a version with molasses, and I have to say, it was pretty good once you got past the vinegary smell—a little tangy, a little like ginger ale.

It's not something I'd probably make very often. Unless, of course, I have some serious haying to do.

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