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Up with Switchel, Herman Melville’s Energy Drink

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Up Mountain Switchel / drinkswitchel.com

Somewhere between a vinegar shrub and modern ginger ale there was switchel – a ginger/apple cider vinegar/sugar concoction that was the trendy thing to drink on all the 17th century farms in New England.

Now, many generations of Vermont farmers later, Ely Key and Garrett Riffle of Up Mountain Switchel are bringing this American heritage beverage back – and they’re gaining popularity on the Brooklyn farmer’s market circuit, winning over kombucha-sippers and cocktail-mixers alike.

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Ely Key: Traditionally it was powdered ginger, apple cider vinegar, and sweetener. We use fresh ginger, raw organic apple cider vinegar, and Vermont maple syrup — because we’re a Vermont company.

Garrett Riffle: Whereas in Southern United States, it is sweetened with molasses because that’s the local sweetener there.  And in the middle states: honey.

Brendan Francis Newnam: What is it, like old-school Gatorade?

Garrett Riffle: Absolutely, it’s the original sports drink. How they used it is most similar to Gatorade. They used it to rehydrate.  And the reason that the ingredients are what they are is: ginger has analgesic effects and would numb the stomach, allowing them to drink more fluid and rehydrate more; and apple cider vinegar was put in there to give like a refreshing citrus flavor; and obviously the maple syrup to provide energy and palatability.

Ely Key: Just for the record, Switchel is way cooler than Gatorade.

Brendan Francis Newnam: The product or the name?

Ely Key: Both! Historically it’s a farmer’s beverage. They would make it when they were haying fields to clear their throat and keep them going, and it wasn’t uncommon for them to mix it with a little moonshine or home brew at the end of the day.

Brendan Francis Newnam: The question is, would they dump Switchel on top of someone after they finished baling hay?

Ely Key: I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well you talked about some of the history, and your website talks about that. Who were the Switchel endorsers back in the day?

Garrett Riffle: “Little House on the Prairie” I think made the first literary reference.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Michael Landon’s hair? Switchel’s responsible for that?

Garrett Riffle: Yeah, I think so.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So what happened to Switchel, guys? I’ve heard of Gatorade, I’ve heard of beer, haven’t heard of Switchell.

Garrett Riffle: Regional, cultural diamond in the rough. You’ve kinda gotta get in there to uncover it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: How did you guys find it?

Ely Key: My dad used to drink it as a kid haying fields up in Vermont, so then two years ago I was  living up there, working, and he told me about it. We started mixing it up and that’s how I found out about it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Do we know why it’s called Switchel? It’s such a cool word to say.

Ely Key: It’s a historical name. That’s what they called it back in the day. In the South they called it Haymaker’s Punch. In the kind of mid-Western belt, with honey, they would call it ‘ginger drink’ or ‘ginger water’. In Vermont it was Switchel.  I mean that’s as far as my knowledge on it goes; we’ve looked into it pretty deep.

Garrett Riffle: Yeah there are also references to a brew called “Swizzle,” two Z’s. Don’t know where that comes from either.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Fo’ swizzle.

Ely Key: It’s gotta come from the booze. It’s gotta come from the late afternoon, after-work, “what do we call this drink.” They actually traditionally made it with rum too, in the Caribbean.

Brendan Francis Newnam: All right, well let’s try it. So I’m looking at… they’re in mason jars, 16 ounces. First of all, tell me about the mason jars. Because you know, in the food world, mason jars in Brooklyn are kind of like skinny jeans — they’re almost alienating to some people at this point. But it seems like you guys need to use mason jars.

Garrett Riffle: We absolutely do. If you take a look right behind me, here is our production equipment, and it’s a large ball valve, and we have to be able to fit the mouth of the bottle around that to pour, and we couldn’t do it with any other bottle. There wasn’t any other way to produce Switchell on the level that we produce without making a huge investment — which, you know, we’re just a small company that started at a farmers market.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well let’s give it a try here. [sips]

That burns, so the ginger on it is pretty hardcore! It kind of reminds me a little bit of kombucha.  Without the hippie stuff.

Garrett Riffle: Right, without a weird mushroom that you pull out of your closet to make it? Yeah.  Same functional benefits as kombucha: probiotic, pro-digestion and then a slew of other things. Ginger is particularly good, as far as pro-digestion, anti-inflammatory. A lot of research being done for cancer benefits.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Wait, Switchell cures cancer, guys? Why didn’t you tell me that to begin with?

Garrett Riffle: Pour it all over you — just fill the bathtub and start soaking in it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So you guys started this some years ago, and now you distribute it. Did you encounter a Switchel culture once you started doing this? Are there Switchel-heads around the country that you encounter?

Garrett Riffle: There are some Switchel-heads. You find them at farmers markets. Generally they have a cane and they come up and tell you how they [elderly voice] “Used to drink it back in the day…”

Brendan Francis Newnam: Switchel must be good if they’re still alive, if they’re that old.

Garrett Riffle: Yeah, that’s one part of the Switchel culture. The other thing is we’ve kind of just created our own by pushing it in bars, mixing it with whiskey, and pushing it on… everyone.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Alright, you want to know something? I was proud when I learned about Switchel because I thought I knew about every drink. Do you guys… have you guys discovered any other drinks that we don’t know about?

Garrett Riffle: I was looking through some historical Switchel references in the Library of Congress data base the other day, and I found out about something called “beef tea.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: All right, what’s that? Is it what it sounds like?

Garrett Riffle: It was a colonial beverage right before Switchel. They just boiled beef bones and drank that like an afternoon delight.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Isn’t that broth?

Garrett Riffle: That’s broth.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But they called it “beef tea.” Wow; that’s pretty tough. I could see that being a followup to Switchel.

Garrett Riffle: Yeah, that’s our next product extension.