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Switchel, or haymaker’s punch, is an old-fashioned summer drink that carries great history. This essay from The 1964 Old Farmer’s Almanac discusses that deep American history of good old switchel.
Arthur Staples was one of The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s favorite essayists. This essay concerns that famous drink of the Old New England Gods—a drink which was common in the hayfield and even contributed to the oratory of statesmen.
What is Switchel?
A correspondent for a New York paper once told of attending a historical pageant in New England where a soft drink was served to visitors that was called “switchel.” She thought it was a concoction of molasses, ginger, and vinegar, but she was not sure. She desired a genuine old-fashioned recipe. If this good woman had gone to the Standard dictionary, she would have found this distinctively American drink listed there. It is defined, “A drink made of molasses and water, sometimes with vinegar, ginger, or rum added; hence any strong drink, flavored.” An illustration is cited from C. D. Warner’s memoir Being a Boy which reads: “The luncheon was packed in a large basket with bottles of root beer and a jug of switchel.”
Curiously enough, Noah Webster did not include switchel in his unabridged, although as a native of New England and probably schooled in the haying season customs of his boyhood, he should have been well acquainted with this then-popular, hot-weather, homemade drink.
For switchel might be termed the original home-brew of New England. And it was by no means peculiar to New England either. In fact, switchel was a favorite of our very own United States Congress.
Switchel: The Favorite Drink of Congress
Our national Congress met in the early days in close quarters in Washington, and the floors of the House and the Senate were frequently crowded with visitors. The senators and members of the House sat with their hats on, after the manner of England’s House of Commons. It was years after the days of John Adams, but before hats disappeared from the heads of the members, and before the floors of the two houses were reserved for the members only.
These were the days of John Randolph, Henry Clay, William H. Crawford, John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Silas Wright, and their predecessors, with old Davy Crockett lurking around in the background. Everyone drank strong drink.
On hot days—all summer and spring and often in winter (although perhaps they drank apple cider tonic in the winter)—a great bowl of switchel stood in the center of the Senate or the House. This was liberally “flavored” with Jamaica Rum. Members paused in their great speeches—those that yet ring through the ages perhaps—and going up to the great bowl, dipped deep. Sometimes they paused glass in hand, to emphasize a telling sentence; sometimes they orated glass in hand and then drank deep and again stalked back majestically to their place with switchel under their belts.
Attendants came in every little while and refilled the bowl. The odor of the beverage with its lemons and rum and spices filled the senate-chamber with a suggestive perfume of oratory and rum. Enormous quantities of it were consumed every day. Due to the powers of apple cider vinegar, perhaps it also kept the bugs away. Members were continually leaving their seats and silently approaching the tank of coolness. This was “switchel,” so-called and so-paid-for in the appropriations of the infant nation.
But “switchel” was switchel, whether with rum or without rum. The memory of hay-time drinks yet lingers in the mind. This was always—families differed—made of ginger, molasses, ice (if any could be obtained), water, and sometimes lemons; and it was put into a stone jug and hidden under a shady place. To go to it, lift the jug from its retreat, see its sides all dewy with distillation and drink “moderately” was the privilege of all. And grandmother made the switchel.