July was pretty hot; August will likely be cooler, but I still think it’s time to revive an old summer drink here in Salem called switchel. A colonial “ade” made of ginger, vinegar, and a sweetening agent, switchel has enjoyed a revival over the last few years, and is currently being produced in such variant hipster havens as Vermont and Brooklyn. In older texts, it’s often referred to as “haymaker’s punch”, implying agrarian origins, but I’ve also found plenty of references to switchel in maritime and military sources. There’s a famous reference to it in the account of one of the major naval battles of the War of 1812, between the USS Constitution and the HMS Guerriere off the coast of Nova Scotia. Anticipating a great victory, the Guerriere Captain James Dacres ordered his cooks to “prepare the switchel” for the soon-to-be captured Americans. After Old Ironsides prevailed, this phrase was incorporated into a mocking/patriotic American sailors’ song: When prisoners we’ve made them, With switchel we will treat them; We’ll welcome them with Yankee Doodle Dandy, O. It’s definitely one of the first American beverages. There’s a very nice reference to Salem switchel in the memoirs of Boston Brahmin Robert C. Winthrop, who marched up to Salem on a hot summer’s day in 1822 in the company of the Boston Light Infantry to camp out on the Common:a wisp of straw for our bed, and a bit of thin bunting above our heads, through which we could see the sentinel stars keeping their watch in the sky, more vigilant than any sentinels we could station, were our only and all-sufficient accommodations; and a little molasses and water and ginger–a switchel I think it was called–was our best drink. Elizabeth Hall’s Practical American Cookery and Domestic Economy (1857) contains the basic recipe (mix half a gallon of molasses, one quart of vinegar, 2 ounces of powdered ginger with five gallons of water, boil and cool to make a beverage that is not only “very pleasant” but also “highly invigorating and healthful”) but it is clearly suitable for all sorts of substitutions and additions: the modern Vermont versions contains maple.
Salem is a major foodie town today, with countless restaurants and bars, a distillery, a cider taproom, a brand new beer brewery, beer hall & garden, and a whole bunch of clever and crafty people: surely someone could produce and market a special Salem Switchel drawing on our city’s past and present? A Salem variety should no doubt feature molasses, but I think rum would also be an appropriate (and appealing) ingredient. And I have the perfect containers for inspiration: these are beautiful vintage bottles produced for S.B. Winn & Son, producers of ginger ale and other beverages, and Eldredge’s Lagers, all made in Salem over a century ago.