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Switchel

My Embeered Life

Recently I was at a doctor’s office, and they were doing an intake exam. “How much does your life revolve around alcohol?”, they asked.

Um. Well. I have a blog series called “My Embeered Life”, where I try to make my life revolve around beer. Ahem.

I do keep close track of how much I drink, though. Maybe too close at times. I’m a worrier.

Which is to say: my friends Matt and Sam got married on Friday. Between the wedding, the bachelor party, brewing beer, Labor Day and a trip to Hot Mama’s for shuffleboard and deep fried pickles, I’ve been drinking kind of a lot. Enough to take it easy for a few days.

A thirst what needs quenching

Sunday I was catching up on yardwork. Mowing, trimming, pulling. Sweating, in other words. I wanted something to drink that wasn’t just water. I remembered reading an article titled Whatever Happened to Switchel?, in which I learned about “the Gatorade of the eighteenth century”. Near the end there’s a bit that really annoyed me:

It has the advantage, let’s say, of being a real thing. It’s made not from chemicals but from ingredients.

As though chemicals do not comprise absolutely everything. That’s how chemistry goddamn works. Beyond that appeal to nature, though, it was an interesting read.

The short of it is that switchel was a drink made from a variety of ingredients, basically whatever you had on hand to get you to the approximation of your goal, but usually an acid, some sugar and ginger. I don’t give a heck about “natural” but I do have a soft spot for historical stuff, trying new things and being that weirdo with odd tastes. So: I found a recipe and modified a bit based on my whims, like the fact that I had bought 64 ounces of maple syrup at Cub Scout camp and that I didn’t have any ginger.

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The recipe

  • 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup
  • tap water to make 2 quarts

Once again, let’s point out that apple cider vinegar is made of water and acetic acid, also known as CH3CO2H, or — *gasp* — a chemical.

The result

Let’s get this out of the way: none of the family and friends that I’ve foisted this concoction upon have liked it. But I do. Like… a lot.

It’s weird, to be sure. The aforementioned newlywed Matt said it smelled like balsamic vinegar, and the star of the show certainly is the interaction between the molasses and the cider vinegar. It’s sour and acidic with a dark candy sweetness that isn’t overpowering but which does quench my thirst and makes me want more. The first sip brings the reaction of “Oh. This is weird.” But then I keep drinking, and I want to keep drinking.

I brought out a mug of it while I finished the yardwork, and dang if a swig now and then didn’t keep me going.

The realization

Switchel, or at least the black concoction I’m calling as much, scratches many of the same itches as beer. It’s a drink that isn’t coffee or tap water (the other two legs that join alcohol in my liquid tripod). The molasses and maple syrup give some of the rich, dark sweetness that you can find in a porter or dubbel, and the affects of acetobacter are well known to lovers of sour beer.

I’ve been drinking while writing this post. I didn’t have a pitcher on hand when I made it, so I had tossed it into my blender (another plus: easy mixing). The next day I really needed fridge space, so I found a mason jar and poured the rest into that. Because “eighteenth century drink made with molasses and vinegar” seems to warrant drinking directly from a quart mason jar, right?

Who knows if I’ll make it again. But I’m certainly glad I did.