Don’t let your bartender fool you. Drinking vinegars such as switchel and shrubs have been around for centuries. For as long as humans have had vinegar and honey, they’ve been mixing the two and drinking them. Vinegar drinks date back to Ancient Greece, Egypt, China . . . The opposite of a local favorite, vinegar drinks have always been widespread.
Switchel is made with cider vinegar and sweetened with honey, molasses, or maple syrup. Shrubs are switchel’s vinegary fruit- and vegetable-based cousins. Both drinks came to these shores from overseas. Their use is rooted in practicality and thrift. Some years, farmers had more fruit than they can sell and more fruit juice than they could drink. Turning fruit into vinegar, or using it to flavor vinegar, puts your produce to good, long-lasting use. If a farmer kept bees, then there was honey at hand. Farmers who tapped trees had syrup. If there were always laborers to be fed and watered, then there wasn’t always money to spend on them.
Mix vinegar, sweetener, and water, and you have a home-grown drink to keep the farmhands cool and primed to work. You’re not wasting produce, and you have a liquid that’s simple to store.
Switchel was appreciated by more than farmers and their laborers. When the US Congress and Senate were in their infancy, switchel was popular with politicians—no three-martini lunches for them . . . although they did like a dollop of rum with their syrup and vinegar.
Pour a glass of switchel, and you’ll be drinking like a Colonial settler. The Dutch and Italians could claim to have imported the tradition, but vinegar was drunk almost everywhere, and there’s no way to prove how that refreshment migrated here.
As a word, shrub has a venerable lineage. “Shrub” comes from the Hindi word sharbat. The same root word that gives us sherbet and sorbet, it refers to a syrup flavored with herbs, flowers, or fruit. “Shrub” is also attached to the Arabic word shurb, which means drink. Used for something potable, rather than plantable, “shrub” first appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine in the mid-eighteenth century. Contemporary shrubs are not spirited, but bartenders put them to delicious use in cocktails.
If you’re emulating farmers and cutting back on waste, then shrubs are your dream drink. They don’t need perfect produce. Whatever’s bruised or on the edge of over-ripeness can go into the pot: fruits, vegetables, herbs, chile peppers . . . There’s a shrub for every taste and season.
These days, there are two key differences between swichels and shrubs. Switchels are stirred and left to sit; it takes a touch of heat to make a shrub. Shrubs are made with herbs, vegetables, spices, and fruits; switchels are relatively simple concoctions of cider vinegar and a sweetener. With most switchels, ginger plays a spicy part.
As to how you use shrubs and switchels, the choices are as wide as your imagination. Switchels and shrubs are refreshing with still or sparkling water. Hot water will kill the live cultures, but when you’re fighting a cold, there’s something innately comforting about a mug full of hot tart sweetness—or hot sweet tartness, if your balance tips that way. Depending on the shrub, you might enjoy it drizzled over sorbet, or as a substitute for lemon syrup to drizzle over cake.
If those choices are overwhelming, then do what nineteenth century Harvard students used to do: mix your ginger-spiced switchel with rum. Add ice and top the drink with sparkling water. The Dark and Stormy has nothing on this.
Apparently basic, this simple (cider vinegar, water, and maple syrup) recipe includes a homemade switchel vinegar made with apple peels and cores. You can make your apple cake and drink it, too. Get the recipe.
If you look in a bottle of raw cider vinegar, you’ll see the “mother”: a composition of enzymes, healthful bacteria, and enzymes. Made with raw honey and raw, unpasturized cider vinegar, this switchel is kin to kombucha and kefir. This switchel has fresh ginger and lemon juice, giving it extra flavor and an extra healthful boost. Get the recipe.
Vegans and gingerbread-lovers will appreciate the earthy richness molasses gives this switchel. Cider vinegar makes it tart and provides beneficial bacteria. Grate the ginger finely for a faster buildup of heat. Get the recipe.
Marking the border between switchel and shrub, this watermelon switchel features grapefruit, ginger, and Himalayan pink salt. It has a cheery color, a hint of ginger, lemon, and piles of fresh melon. Sweeten it with honey, maple syrup, or liquid stevia. To keep the health benefits, make sure your cider vinegar is organic, unfiltered, and raw. Get the recipe.
If lemonade and strawberry shortcake had a lovechild, then it would be this vanilla strawberry shrub. Top it with soda or water. Mix it with light rum, pisco, or cachaça. Drizzle it over strawberries—on their own, with shortcake, or at the bottom of a champagne cocktail. Drink summer any way you will. Get the recipe.
Blackberries give this shrub a velvety hue that’s as appealing as its seasonal flavor. If you serve it with soda, then let it stay layered. The opaque darkness of the shrub and the translucent sparkle of the soda make an eye-catching contrast; let guests stir their own. This shrub is versatile enough to keep at hand and striking enough to make a fetching present. Get the recipe.
On a hot day, ditch lemonade in favor of peach shrub with water and ice. This shrub has basil, which confers a subtle herbal flavor. Sugar’s the sweetener, but you can use honey, if you prefer. Substitute nectarines if they’re fresher or cheaper, and feel free to use bruised or overripe fruit. Get our Peach Shrub recipe.