Switchel was perhaps the "original" Gatorade® — it was a refreshing, electrolyte laden drink originating in the 1600s in the West Indies. It has many different recipes, and became popular in Early America, especially among farmers. Over time, the origins of this specific beverage have been lost. It’s been attributed to the Amish, who still prepare it, but its use was likely widespread in the 17th, 18th, and early 19th century in farming communities across the US and its territories.
There are disagreements on the ingredients for switchel, which may also be called haymaker’s punch, or switzel. Most likely, the early drink was a combination of apple cider vinegar, water, molasses and possibly ginger for flavoring. Laura Ingalls Wilder calls it ginger-water in the book The Long Winter, and references how it quenched the thirst without upsetting the stomach after hot work making hay. Other recipes for switchel use honey instead of molasses, suggesting the drink may not be a new world invention, but may instead have existed first in Europe, prior to sugar, and the sugar byproduct molasses, being available. Another common variant is to add lemon juice to the beverage.
There are many who still recall drinking switchel as they worked on farms, especially during the summer months. Some writers also again reference the Amish, who may serve the drink hot during the winter months. Most are more used to the cold version, and cite the sharp bite of vinegar and molasses paired with ginger as particularly refreshing when performing work in the hot sun. Gradually the drink became replaced with the various sports drinks available today, but some people still prepare and prefer switchel.
The main benefit of switchel, aside from the taste — which many cite as unusual but delicious — is that the ingredients are easy on the stomach. You could drink more switchel than water without getting sick. This made it easier to stave off dehydration. The famous Physician D. C. Jarvis, who made a version with honey called honegar, also touted the beverage as healthful. Jarvis was particularly famous for his writings on homeopathy, and his 1958 book Folk Medicine: A Vermont Country’s Guide to Good Health remained a bestseller for several years.
Jarvis claimed that vinegar had particular health benefits, which now are disputed by modern physicians. However, his advocacy for switchel or honegar kept the drink alive and familiar to many. He claimed the drink was particularly healthful and recommended it as a tonic to cure many ills.