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Its name may not be familiar, but switchel has been around a long time. The sweet-sour-spicy fermented drink made with apple cider vinegar, a sweetener like molasses or maple syrup, and ginger, has been consumed in the US since the late 17th century, when it was drunk by farmers working the harvest. It even makes an appearance in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series.
But for whatever reason, it never went mainstream—only artisans, brewing buffs and Vermonters (it has a big following in Vermont) carried on the switchel making tradition. But now that the public is open to tart, funky flavors (credit to kombucha), switchel is making its move, shaking off its Americana cobwebs and showing up on restaurant menus and specialty grocery shelves.
Though the formula has essentially remained the same, switchel has undergone some changes. Because as prescient as they were regarding switchel’s potential comeback, The Little House on the Prairie gang probably didn’t think about adding booze to the mix. The tart, gingery drink isn’t just for quenching thirsts anymore. Its complex flavors make it a must-have summer cocktail mixer.
You can buy switchel at grocery stores (look for Vermont Switchel or Up Mountain Switchel) or online at Mouth.com. Or, if you have a couple of days, you can make it yourself. At Imperial in Portland, Oregon, bartender Brandon Wise has been making his own switchel for the past two years (see his recipe below). For him, it’s a way to get back to America’s culinary roots. “It’s a piece of our history that was brushed aside,” he says. Currently, Wise’s switchel is available on ice and in the Slings and Arrows cocktail, an off-menu drink made with rum, Scotch, lemon juice and mulled Pinot Noir syrup.
If the Slings and Arrows seems a little daunting to make at home, Wise also recommends using switchel as a ginger beer replacement in a Dark ’n’ Stormy. “Rum’s such a natural flavor pairing for the switchel, since they share the molasses component,” he says. “Opt for a burnt rum—something dark and funky like Cruzan Black Strap.” A few other easy drinks to make with switchel include whiskey and switchel with a spritz of lemon, a shandy made with a light ale and switchel instead of lemonade, and a switchel spritzer made with a citrusy white wine like Sauvignon Blanc.
Imperial’s Homemade Switchel
Makes 1 gallon
About 4 quarts water (room temperature)
½ cup dark molasses
1¼ cups granulated sugar
½ cup apple cider vinegar
2 oz. raw ginger juice
1 gram Champagne yeast
¾ tsp. cream of tartar
1. In a large pot over high heat, combine 2 quarts of water, molasses, sugar, apple cider vinegar and ginger juice and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, cool to room temperature and transfer into a 1-gallon container.
2. In a small measuring cup, rehydrate the yeast according to packet instructions, and add the yeast mixture to the 1-gallon container.
3. Add the cream of tartar and enough additional water to make the mixture a full gallon. Stir very well to ensure even distribution of yeast and all ingredients.
4. Pour the switchel into 16-ounce swing-top bottles. Cap and store in a dark room at room temperature for 44 to 48 hours, then place the bottles in the refrigerator; don’t open the bottles until they’re fully chilled. Keep refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.