Summer is rapidly approaching. When the weather gets hot, what thirst-quenching beverage will you be reaching for?
Lemonade? Soda? Iced tea? Water?
If you’re anything like the farmers of old or an increasing number of chefs and bartenders today, your answer might be switchel.
JP Fetherston, head bartender at Washington cocktail bar Columbia Room, says switchel was “farmers’ Gatorade before we had Gatorade,” something to restore and hydrate on a hot day. It is typically made with cider vinegar, some kind of sweetener (molasses, maple syrup, honey or sugar) and water.
Fetherston says he was introduced to switchel in New York. “The first sip — it was really kind of odd and jarring,” he says. Then, he thought it was “the most refreshing thing in the world.”
At Columbia Room, Fetherston incorporates switchel into a nonalcoholic quaff called the Spero, named after the bar’s chef, Johnny Spero. Spero likes to use hay in his cooking, so Fetherston combines the switchel, made with maple syrup gently spiced with guajillo peppers, with a hay and barley “tea,” along with some ginger. The overall effect is sweet and sour, with a bit of earthiness from the hay.
Chef Tarver King of the Restaurant at Patowmack Farm in Lovettsville, Va., is also a fan of nonalcoholic switchel. “I don’t know why this isn’t on tap at every gas station you pull into,” he says. “I drink it all the time. It works.”
He makes his switchel with maple syrup and ginger. Ingredients are combined tableside with preserved blueberries for a bit of a “magic show” — the clearish switchel goes into a cocktail shaker and comes out a rich blue-red thanks to the berries. He’s been serving the beverage with a fish course on his tasting menu.
Switchel is just as good with a bit of booze, says Cody Henson, bar manager at the Grey in Savannah, Ga. “It’s a pretty versatile product,” says Henson, who makes his ginger switchel with cane syrup. In a recent cocktail, he combined it with rye, Drambuie (a Scottish liqueur) and lemon. Switchel also plays well with vodka, Henson says. King suggests bourbon as another possible pairing.
Switchel is still something that needs to be explained to many customers, and not everyone is ready to take the plunge. “If you can’t get around that vinegar character, it’s not for you,” Fetherston says. It’s “one of those flavors you don’t sit on the fence about.”
124 Blagden Alley NW.
42461 Lovettsville Rd., Lovettsville, Va.