photo courtesy of Superior Switchel Company
Here’s what you need to be in the know this summer, friends: This is the summer of switchel. Switch-who? Switchel, rhymes with Mitchell. It was once a favored drink of farmers in the days of Betsy Ross and George Washington, and typically contained some mixture of vinegar, ginger, and a sweetener such as molasses. Who cares? You do! Because like everything from olden times—dream of the 1890’s!—switchel is enjoying a resurgence, and now we have sweet new start-up switchel companies so you can spend the summer of 2016 sipping switchel and mixing switchel cocktails and being right on trend.
One of the first local switchel entrepreneurs is Melina Lamer, a former St. Olaf hockey defense player who started tinkering with switchel-like beverages in her college dorm room. “It all started with me trying to make an all-natural Gatorade, for energy. I was tired of chugging a big bottle of Powerade before every game. First I started making ginger tea. Then I was home one weekend at my Grandma’s in Wisconsin, and she was talking about apple cider vinegar. I knew about drinking vinegars, that they used to be popular, and thought about mixing that with my ginger tea. I was actually making my own concoction with ginger, vinegar, and honey when I came upon the word ‘switchel,’ and realized I was already making something like it, minus the molasses.” She started making switchel for herself, one thing led to another, and Superior Switchel Co. is now on local shelves, including stores such as Linden Hills Co-op (where you can get refillable growlers) and Lowry Hills Meats. (Full list here.)
Like other vinegar drinks, many people drink switchel for health benefits. “I was on Prilosec for heartburn before I started drinking switchel,” says Lamer. “I no longer take that. But mainly I like it for the energy. I’m a mail carrier, and we’re always sweating—it’s definitely rehydrating. Water is fantastic, but this really works better. And for me, espresso makes me jittery, but switchel is like a prolonged energy, not a kick in the face that makes you jittery. The ginger also clears my sinuses.” The main work of switchel lies in sourcing and prepping the organic ginger, says Lamer who brews three flavors: Haymaker (the original flavor, made with ginger and honey, and so-called because switchel was typically associated with hot farm work), Orange Maple, and Lavender Lemon. The original Haymaker is zippy and has a nice ginger sizzle to it; the lavender lemon is subtle and gracefully lemony.
Lamer tells me some restaurants have been experimenting with using it in cocktails—she thinks the most successful have been pairing it with a lighter alcohol, like sake or sochu. I couldn’t help but notice that switchel comes in resealable Mason jars, making it look like the lazy hipster’s easiest cocktail to take out on the canoe. Or on the pontoon. The paddle boat. The pool float? I’m going to try some with rum, as George Washington’s farming neighbors no doubt did. Because this is the summer of switchel.