After a day of working in the hot sun, a cool, refreshing drink is usually in order. What happens when you discover you have no lemons or limes? Beer is always an option, but there are other choices. If you look back a few hundred years, one of the common refreshers was Switchel. If you go back even further you’ll come across its precursor Oxymel. What do these two drinks have in common? They both contain vinegar as the acidulant. If you read on, you’ll see it’s not as bad as it sounds.
Before refrigeration and rapid transit, citrus fruit were only available for a very narrow period of time every year. For some northern countries, it would have been very expensive to use lemons and limes, meaning only southerners and the rich enjoyed them. That also meant the peons had to find something else to use.
The easy choice was vinegar. Cheap and abundant, anyone could afford it. It was often the by-product of fermented liquids, undergoing further bacteria fermentation, turning the alcohol into vinegar. Wine, beer, cider, perry and mead often turned to vinegar before it could be consumed. People would never throw this out, they’d just reduce the price and sell it, or use it for preserving other foods (pickling).
This natural process of bacterial fermentation would have affected everything. Most alcoholic drinks probably had a quantity of vinegar in them. Since this was normal, people developed a taste for vinegar flavoured beverages. Well, they weren’t put off by them at least, and drinking a mug of sweetened sour wine, was a cheap and easy way to drink something safe.
It should be pointed out that only the poorest of the poor drank city water. Since people dumped their chamber pots out the window, onto the street, most city water was contaminated with all manner of unhealthy excrement. The Black Plague, Yellow Fever and Small Pox also made people avoid contaminated water. Most fermented drinks were relatively safe, and vinegar was a much better option than a glass of water.
With an acquired taste for vinegar, people obviously started mixing it. Straight vinegar was never a great option, but mixed with something sweet, it was passable and even pleasant. One of the early vinegar-based drinks was called Oxymel, made from honey, vinegar and water, which is referenced as far back as the 15th century, if not further.
“But you said they didn’t drink the water?”
OK, they did have sources of water, like rainwater cisterns. If you were lucky, there may have been a natural spring to pull water from, or an aqueduct that brought fresh water to the city. But bars and taverns were unlikely to store water when they had beer, wine and spirits to store. Oxymel was most likely a drink consumed at home.
From Oxymel came Switchel. They say Switchel originated in the 1600’s in the West Indies and worked its way north to American farmers. Probably, but the only difference between Oxymel and Switchel is the addition of a small quantity of ginger and the use of molasses as the sweetener.
American farmers adopted this punch during the fall harvest. Switchel became so popular that it eventually became known as Haymaker’s Punch.
I was surprised that I actually enjoyed the Switchel recipe. If the proportions are done right, it is well balanced and refreshing. The molasses and ginger add the flavour, but maybe to much for some. The solution is simple, use another sweetener. Plain table sugar works just fine, or maybe Golden Syrup or Demerara sugar is more to your liking. My person preference is light treacle and white wine vinegar.
“Excuse me, but where’s the alcohol?”
Well, not every drink needs alcohol, and this is the Art of Drink, not the Art of Drunk. I do see potential for the additional of a little liquor. I tried Wray & Nephew Overproof rum, and it wasn’t to my liking. To work with the vinegar, a straight spirit probably isn’t going to work as well as something fruity (i.e. the Shrub). Here’s what I tried:
1¼ oz Mindori Melon Liqueur
1½ oz Water
1 Tbls White Wine Vinegar
1 Tsp Fructose*
Instructions: Combine in a glass with ice, stir and enjoy.
This is a very pleasant summer drink. Nicely acidic, balanced sweetness and no perceivable acetic acid smell.
* If you don’t have fructose, you can use 1½ to 2 teaspoons of normal table sugar (sucrose).
Writer, author of Fix the Pumps, chemist, beekeper and general do-er-of-things, Darcy can generally be found looking for new and interesting things to do, usually over a cocktail. Currently working on more soda fountain history.
Last modified: November 11, 2018