Switchel, an Old-School Farmers' Tonic, Makes Its Way into Bars

A bottle of switchel next to ginger with a shot of switchel and a shot of pickle juice.
Switchel, an artisanal tonic for health and energy, makes for a delicious element in a cocktail or a standalone shot. At Montana's Trail House, it's served alongside pickle juice as their take on a pickleback. Photos courtesy of Montana's Trail House.

Are you ready for the next kombucha? Switchel — made with apple cider vinegar, ginger and sugar — was once the drink of choice for colonial-era farmers; in recent years, it’s gained street cred as an artisanal tonic for health and energy.

Susan Alexa was making the drink at home for 30 years before launching the Vermont Switchel Company in 2012, using farmers markets to get the word out in a state that’s considered the beverage’s home on the East coast. She uses a recipe originated by her husband’s seventh-generation farming family that she’s tinkered with over the years. This is her third career, and the company has been growing, now doing online sales and distribution throughout New England.

“People are looking for things that are cleaner tasting,” she suggests as a reason for the surge in popularity. As sugary drinks are under sustained attack for causing health issues, people are looking for something like their switchel, which uses the lower-glycemic maple syrup and blackstrap molasses. “I think it also helps people relate to their agrarian roots to drink something that was once very popular because it was simple, pure and effective.”

A man building a switchel cocktail garnished with sugared ginger. Like kombucha, imbibers and bartenders are turning to switchel for a healthier alternative to sugary mixers.

The company is working with Vermont orchardists to make a bulk apple cider vinegar so they can source locally, and they’ve been connecting with the state’s craft distilleries to test its cocktail applications. Traditionally, switchel would’ve been combined with rum — a combination that harks back to switchel’s history in the Caribbean, where rum was produced alongside sugar. “The whole cocktail thing was an unintended consequence of starting this company,” Alexa, a professed wine drinker, notes. But customer demand led to experimentation. She’s taken to freezing a bit of switchel and then pouring a local bourbon over it so that it dilutes more slowly. About 30 percent of her customers, she says, buy switchel to mix with spirits.

At Montana’s Trail House in Bushwick, Brooklyn, they are making their own switchel. Chef Nate Courtland loves fermentation experiments — from vinegar to hot sauce to kimchi — and makes his own apple cider vinegar for the restaurant’s concentrated take on the drink (which is also used in food menu items like switchel-glazed carrots).

A cocktail that's red on top and brown on bottom. At Montana's Trail House, switchel is served in cocktails, used in food items like switchel-glazed carrots and even consumed as a quick shot taken for its energy and nutritional properties.

Bar manager Austin Hartman calls the farmer’s punch the grandmother of kombucha and was inspired by its native East Coast history. “Once we honed in on the recipe, options kept presenting themselves,” Hartman says of the inspiration for making it a large chunk of the drink menu. Before opening there were eight possible switchel drinks, which they whittled down to five. It includes a straight shot, a Switch Back (a shot of rye served alongside a shot of switchel, a la pickleback), a switchel cocktail made with your choice of spirit, and more.

“People come in just to do a shot of it and then leave,” Hartman tells me. It adds a great option for people who don’t drink but would love to have something more interesting than a soda, especially because of its healthy qualities — which is why some people stop by the restaurant like it’s a juice bar serving up tiny doses of wheatgrass.

At the Trail House, they’re also experimenting with barrel-aging the switchel and have no plans to stop producing it; they’re even making plans to bottle it. As word spreads and production of the beverage on a craft scale continues to grow, there’s no doubt you’ll soon be sipping on switchel cocktails — if you haven’t already.

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