Switchel - Refreshing History


Switchel originates from the Caribbean in the late 1600’s and spread from there through to America and by the early 1800’s it was seen as a very American drink. It started off as a field and farm workers drink, water was not always trusted as safe to drink, so they would add vinegar to kill the germs, ginger to settle the stomach and a sweetener to make it taste nice. From there it became a popular drink with sailors as it helped to prevent scurvy, also it would make impure water more palatable to drink on long voyages. It eventually became common place in many taverns, farmhouses and private homes.

Switchel, haymakers punch

During the war of 1812 in a naval battle between HMS Guerriere and the USS Constitution. British Captain James Dacres jokingly called for Switchel to be prepared, for the Americans he had planned on capturing. The Americans led by Captain Isaac Hull, had a crew refreshed and energized by Switchel were able to defeat and capture the British instead. The British sailors were known to drink Switchel when they could as it helped to prevent Scurvy.

HMS Guerriere and the USS Constitution

In the 1800's representatives in congress for a number of years would have Switchel made in large quantities daily it was so popular it was made a duty for an official to make it. It was made of Molasses, Ginger and pure water from the Capitol Spring and would have been flavoured with the best Jamaican rum. Many Gallons were consumed daily and whenever there was exciting debate the supply had to be renewed again and again.

Switchels grew in popularity from the fields and sailing ships of the 1700’s to Taverns and private homes in the early 1900’s. The drink was extremely popular with students of Harvard, where they would mix it with Rum. “Switchel all round!” was the starting war cry of many a parade and March, where Switchel would be offered as both incentive and reward. 

The growing nineteenth-century temperance movement saw non-alcoholic switchel, typically made with vinegar, water and molasses as an excellent alternative to alcoholic drinks.

In the early nineteenth century, it was often recommended by Physicians to avoid ice water, it was difficult to provide and keep on hand and they believed to much would cause indigestion and other more serious problems. Some early switchels did not contain ginger and it was possible to over indulge on a non-alcoholic switchel, they were so refreshing, if you drank too much they would cause bloating and indigestion. To prevent this ginger was added, which has a calming effect on upset stomachs.

Switchel has been in and out of the media for over 160 years, even in the mid 1800's there were articles that referred to switchel as old fashioned summer drink, extremely popular in the olden days and my personal favorite ancient thirst killer.

There were also many references to how refreshing they are. From very welcome to the hands in the field, one article from the early 1900's and the early days of soda claims a glass of ice cream soda about a hundredth part as good as a switchel. I would like the person who wrote this next comment from 1921 to try our switchels and see how they compare. "As a thirst quencher it is unexcelled. After mixing a switchel, you would be conscious of a grand and glorious feeling that no drink out of a soda fountain or a bottle can ever give. A drink unsurpassed for quenching thirst and giving the hard worker new strength and a refreshed attitude towards his job and life in general." Well, I will take take 10 cases then!


What helped Switchel become so popular in countries that could have extremes of heat was in fact the vinegar. Pre-refrigeration lots of foods were preserved using vinegar which meant many people accustomed to the taste and it would have been readily available. Vinegar has long been held by people to have medicinal qualities it was often used as a treatment to bring down fevers and was believed to have cooling properties when diluted with other liquids.

Switchel was promoted as a drink with restorative properties, in the 1800’s in most Navy’s it was recommended that on long voyages, ships carry Vinegar, Molasses and Ginger. These ingredients diluted with water should be served to sailors once or twice a day, while at sea.

Switchels have been a staple for around two and half centuries, reached a peak of popularity in the 1900’s especially around the temperance movement as these drinks were known to cheer but not inebriate. The non-alcoholic option for drinks is often something that is seen as a kids drink, fruit juice, pop etc. Switchels and Shrubs fill this void with a drink that is not  overly sweet and has an interesting flavor profile. We have included a recipe from 1913 for you to try, but, it is often said the only way to make a switchel is to make it. So go ahead and have a go making this ancient thirst killer for yourself and never be thirsty again!

False Ox Switchel - Refreshing History

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