A Guide to Switchel, the Latest ‘It’ Wellness Drink

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There’s a new healthy drink in town for you to spend $4 on after a workout. While pressed juice, coconut water, and kombucha have all found popularity in the wellness community, switchel (no, that’s not a typo or an S&M act) is the latest drink that wants in on the wellness action. Also sometimes called haymaker’s punch, it’s a hipster Frankestein of some of wellness’s most beloved ingredients, including water, ginger, apple cider vinegar, and a natural sweetener, most commonly maple syrup.

It seems like a drink Gwyneth would pass out to Apple and her school friends in Goop-approved juice boxes, but it’s actually delicious. Ginger has long been a favorite in the health food community for its purported anti-inflammatory properties and ability to calm your stomach, though there isn’t a ton of conclusive science. Apple cider vinegar is one of those hyperbolic wellness foods that has been credited with helping pretty much every single problem out there, from weight loss to stinky feet. Most of those claims are totally unproven, but there’s been some legitimate research in the diabetes community that apple cider vinegar has some modest effects on blood sugar control.

One switchel formula, from Vermont Switchel, also includes blackstrap molasses and lemon juice, which add some antioxidants and minerals. According to enthusiasts, switchel also supposedly contains electrolytes — which usually means sodium, calcium, and potassium — but the amounts are minimal, at least based on the nutrition labels for several brands. The one legitimate claim switchel can make is that it’s better for you than Coke and certainly less boring than water.

Swtichel’s modern renaissance began in 2014 when Modern Farmer, which is basically the Vogue of farming, published an article titled “Are You Cool Enough to Drink Switchel?” In the last year, Shape, Equinox’s fitness blog Furthermore, and Well + Good have all written about “nature’s Gatorade,” sometimes even going so far as to call it the next kombucha.

But like many trends in wellness, switchel has been around for hundreds of years and was a favorite of Vermont dairy farmers for combating dehydration during the summer haying season, according to Susan Alexander, the founder of Vermont Switchel. The drink’s official origins are hard to pinpoint, but it appears to have been common in the Northeastern U.S., in the Caribbean (where it was made with rum because of the lack of potable water), and in certain Amish farming communities.

Now it’s used as a fancy sports drink or a daily tonic, says Ely Key, founder of Up Mountain Switchel. Alexander says that her daughter’s college rowing team used it is a post-workout beverage, and she’s been in negotiations with the Burlington, Vermont, city marathon to offer it to runners on the route. “To me it’s a hybrid of many of those traditional [drink] categories. It’s functional because it has health attributes, sort of like lemonade or iced tea because of how it refreshes you, and an energy/sports drink because of the electrolytes and minerals.”

To test out its post-workout drink potential, I found some Up Mountain switchel for $3.69 at Health Nuts, my local health food store on the Upper West Side, after hearing some women talk about it at my local gym. I buy it once a week now and make it last through two post-workout rehydration sessions diluted with a lot of water. It’s probably not hydrating me any better than plain old water, but its tangy flavor makes me feel like it is, and I’m convinced the ginger has helped my stomach calm down after a few particularly grueling burpee sessions.

It’s refreshing to drink, kind of like an Arnold Palmer, but with more kick. There is no obvious vinegary flavor, but it has a strong ginger taste, like what you would find in a Moscow mule or less sweet ginger ale. It tastes a lot better than two of wellness’s other previous beverage crazes, kombucha and coconut water, which, despite their popularity, have always tasted to me like old socks and a salty puddle, respectively.

The one downside? It’s usually sold in a mason jar, a receptacle that is impossible to drink from without spilling down the front of your shirt. (Advice to switchel makers: If you hope to break into the upscale world of boutique fitness, the drink needs a less squat-looking bottle that you can easily swig after a workout.)

Maple syrup is the one ingredient potentially preventing switchel from reaching its full wellness Zeitgeist potential. Pancakes, a dish sure to make a carb-phobic yogi run far away, are the first thing to come to mind when you think about syrup. But maple syrup’s PR is improving. While it gained fame/notoriety as part of the much-maligned Master Cleanse, popularized by Beyoncé in preparation for her role in Dream Girls, it’s trying to throw off that charlatan image.

Both Alexander and Key mentioned that, as a sweetener, maple syrup has a mid-range glycemic index (about equal to honey), meaning it takes longer to metabolize and there isn’t the rush and crash associated with table sugar, although sugar is sugar. Switchel has about 50 calories per eight ounces. But studies are in progress. “Maple syrup is finally getting a bunch of money for research on its health benefits,” says Key. “It hasn’t gotten the money towards research that honey has.” (Two Minnesota-based companies, St. Paul Switchel and Superior Switchel, use honey as the main sweetener.) There’s even a maple syrup fitness-gel now, called Untapped.

Switchel, however, has one more advantage over other, more popular wellness beverages, because it turns out it is also an incredible mixer for booze. A few years ago, it started showing up in bars in Brooklyn, cementing its hipster rep. Alexander has teamed up with a local Vermont distillery and syrup maker to come up with Hardwick Hooch, named after the town where they both produce their products. She also claims it mixes well with bourbon or heated with rum for a winter beverage. All the switchel makers mentioned here offer cocktail menus on their websites.

Key, who has sold switchel to restaurants to use as a mixer for drinks, says, “[Switchel] really lends itself nicely to booze. It’s part of the narrative historically. They used to mix it with moonshine and homebrew.” Plus, for those of you who want to feel a little self-righteous while drinking, Key claims that it will help prevent a hangover, thus ensuring you make it to your hot yoga class the next morning.

You can order switchel online if it’s not sold in your area, and Vermont Switchel even sells a concentrated version that you just add water to. On the DIY scale, switchel falls somewhere between this Goop cardamom waffle with rose-soaked blackberries recipe and basic avocado toast. Bon Appétit has a good recipe to try.

Or, you know, just drink water.