January 21, 2013

Agrarian heritage in a bottle

Vermont woman puts 21st century twist on haymaker's punch


---- — CABOT, VT. — Honey Boo Boo’s “Go-Go Juice” (Mountain Dew and Red Bull) has nothing on the 17th century all-natural energizer and refresher: switchel.

Also known as haymaker’s punch, it was referenced as ginger-water in Laura Ingalls Wilder “The Long Winter” and was gulped down from its Caribbean origins to the American colonies.

The basic ingredients are molasses, apple cider vinegar and ginger stirred in water. It is served chilled, preferably. Sugar and honey are alternative sweeteners. Vermonters add maple syrup.

Before living in Vermont, Susan Alexander had never heard of the pre-Gatorade drink.

“My husband comes from this incredibly huge family,” said Alexander, founder of the Vermont Switchel Company based in Cabot, Vt. “He was one of 11 children and his mother one of 16 children. Family gatherings tend to be pretty big affairs, and they are pretty regular.”

Twenty-seven years ago at a family shindig, a sister-in-law made a batch of switchel.

“This is what her grandfather used to drink when they were haying. I had grown up in Binghamton. My grandmother was a farmer in Pennsylvania. I never heard of it. I was intrigued. I loved it. It was love at first sip. I could not believe this wonderful beverage existed, and I never heard of it.”

Fascinated with the amber-hued brew, she researched recipes and whipped up batches in her kitchen.

“I said one day I want to bottle and sell it because it’s so good and good for you. Maple syrup has a low glycemic index. It doesn’t give you the spike and crash like cane sugar. It gave them (haymakers) a little bit of constant energy. Apple cider vinegar is just so nice and tart and tangy mixed with this syrup. It slakes your thirst. That’s what they used to say in the old days.”

Pre-refrigeration and Coleman coolers, jugs of switchel were placed in a nearby brook by farmers.

“We put lemon juice in ours. They didn’t have lemon juice. They used powdered ginger. We use fresh ginger and blackstrap molasses not to be confused with regular molasses. It has tons of calcium, iron, potassium and electrolyte properties that are good for your body.”

Life happened, and Alexander kept deferring her dream to commercially make switchel.

“I had some turn of events in my life, and I said I don’t want to wait. I jumped in with both feet in earnest.”

She toted her concoction around the Green Mountain State for market research.

“The response was so positive I started bottling it professionally and commercially in June. We do it at the Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick. We bottle in 12 ounce bottles and Mason jars. It’s flying off the shelves.”

For some, it’s a nostalgic reminder. One customer was chased by her grandmother around the farm. The grandmother was intent on her young granddaughter drinking switchel, and the granddaughter wasn’t having “that stuff.”

For palettes accustomed to sugary beverages, switchel takes some getting used to.

Some flat out don’t like it. Others allow it to grow on them.

“They come back week after week. After two or three times, they’re hooked and they can’t get enough of it. If you’re used to drinking lemonade, iced tea and Pepsi; it’s not what your think. It has a very unsuspecting flavor. Some people are in love with it immediately.”

A father handed a bottle to his 18-month-old child, who refused to part with it.

“It’s a good beverage for all ages. My family drinks it year round. We always had it in the refrigerator in a half-gallon jug.”

Her children cut it with water and drank it before their athletic games.

Though switchel is ambrosia when it’s hot as the blazes, it’s good this time of year.

“Heat it up and put in a cinnamon stick or shake a little powdered cinnamon in a mug. People are mulling it and adding rum to it. This is a recurring theme of adding alcohol to switchel.”

In all the years she made it for her family, it never occurred to her to add alcohol to it. Her customers’ inventiveness is endless.

In the thick of last summer, customers squeezed navel oranges or added orange bitters to rum and switchel and served it over ice.

“It tastes really good.”

Others have experimented with bourbon and scotch. One man put garlic and olive oil in it to marinate pork loins. A woman added the same two ingredients to toss as a salad dressing.

“I haven’t tried it yet,” Alexander said. “People are so creative. It’s an alcohol mixer, pork marinade and salad dressing.”

Email Robin Caudell:

TO GET WHAT: Vermont Switchel AVAILABLE: In Burlington at Healthy Living, City Market, Burlington Farmer's Market and at Natural Provisions in Williston. WEBSITE: