Switchel: An 18th Century Sports Drink?

A Kerr mason jar

Image via Wikipedia


As you may have heard, Jose Andres recently took one of his hallmark D.C. restaurants, Café Atlantico, offline, transforming it into a six-month pop-up restaurant called America Eats Tavern. Created to run in conjunction with a concurrent exhibit at the National Archives called “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?”, its menu consists of traditional (and sometimes lost or forgotten) gems of American cooking over the centuries, each extensively researched and masterfully realized. Both the exhibit and the fare are far more enjoyable than their names imply, and both will disappear early in January 2012.

The menu gives brief histories of each dish, and these are often fascinating – like the one for Lobster Newberg, a dish introduced at Delmonico’s in 1876. It seems the secret to the sauce came from one Ben Wenberg, a shipper of fruit from Latin America. After a dispute between Wenberg and the restaurant’s management, Delmonico’s simply rearranged a few letters and renamed the dish “Newberg.”

Not just the eats, but drinks at America Eats are historical and thoroughly researched. I was particularly taken with switchel, a cocktail with origins going back to Colonial America. On the menu it’s described as “a field worker’s drink from New England, blending rum, cider vinegar, molasses, and ginger into a surprisingly refreshing beverage.” It’s served in a Mason-type jar.

Switchel is surprisingly refreshing, and when I returned home I decided to replicate it. My research uncovered that it was not originally an alcoholic beverage, but sort of an 18th and 19th century version of a sports drink. (There’s even an allusion to a version of it, called haymakers punch, in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series.) Some people claim that the vinegar-molasses-ginger-water tonic is better for your body than modern-day sports drinks and, in hot weather, more effective than plain water for keeping you hydrated.

It turned out to be surprisingly easy to produce a delicious version of switchel at home – with one difference. At the restaurant the cocktail is a beautiful golden color. My version, while similar tasting, turned out the color of Coke. Stymied, I emailed Owen Thomson, the lead bartender at America Eats. Here is what he replied:

“Glad you enjoyed the drink; this is one of my favorites as well. I found a lot of old recipes for switchel in books, and one that I found to be my favorite actually blended a little honey in with the molasses – so that may have something to do with the color. We also use fresh juiced gingerroot as opposed to just macerating cut gingerroot. Below is our recipe which we then mix with 5-year El Dorado rum.”

So, take your pick: dark brown switchel or golden yellow switchel. Either way, I reckon it will surprise, delight, and refresh.


Stir together ½ cup cider vinegar, ¼ cup molasses, scant ½ teaspoon ground ginger, 4 cups cold water (Serves 6).


Stir together ¼ cup molasses, ¼ cup honey, 2 teaspoons ginger juice, ½ cup cider vinegar, 3 cups water (Serves 4).

SWITCHEL COCKTAILS: Divide switchel among highball glasses or Mason jars. Stir 1½ to 2 ounces of rum into each glass.

America Eats’ menu makes for compelling reading. Dining there is even better. Check out What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?, through January 3, 2012 at the National Archives (About 1 block from America Eats) Have you dined at America Eats? Tell me what you think.

12 responses to “Switchel: An 18th Century Sports Drink?

  1. I love fresh ginger, but molasses not so much! Still, I’m going to try both versions of switchel. Great name for a drink and a fun post. Thanks!

  2. We visited the exhibit and ate at the America Eats restaurant. The food was terrific, unique and marvelous. I enjoyed three different kinds of oysters, the pickled oysters being the best. The hush puppies with corn butter, the she crab soup, BBQ beef short ribs were all terrific. Great meal and very interesting exhibit at the National Archives.

    • I had those amazing oysters and hush puppies, too. And the ginormous bison tomahawk steak for two that comes with a choice of one of the eight historical catsups. Fantastic! I’m so glad you experienced this place.

  3. I love ginger and this drink sounds great! I’ll have to try it.
    Alice sent me here. 🙂

  4. Ooo, that seems like the perfect drink when people come over to help you move house!

  5. So THAT’S what Haymaker’s Punch is (we’re big fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder over here!). Great story, great arcana (did i use that word correctly??). Thanks for posting.

  6. When I was a little girl, we took a similar drink (minus the molasses) out to my uncle and cousins in the field on their farm.

  7. Pingback: Review: Pastaio in Spring Lake; Big Brothers/Sisters Benefit; My Most Popular Recipe Ever – Ideal for Father’s Day | Dine With Pat

  8. Pingback: Meet Dan Richer of Razza; My Review of LP Steak; Montclair’s Food & Wine Fest; Switchel Goes Mainstream | Dine With Pat

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