When you’re out in a hot field cutting hay, as Ely Key, 28, spent many a summer doing on his family’s Vermont farm, you can pass hours considering the best way to quench your thirst. Lemonade might seem like the obvious answer, but citrus doesn’t just grow on trees, at least not on Northeastern farms. But in historic orchard country another acid was nearly omnipresent: apple cider vinegar. And back in America’s infancy, a drink featuring precisely that whet many a farmer’s whistle.
The traditional summer drink, typically sweetened with molasses, was popular all over the young country—Southerners called it haymaker’s punch—and variations were spiked with brandy, hard cider or rum. Up here, it was known as switchel.
Key’s dad, a Vermont native, had grown up drinking switchel, but the sweet-tart colonial combo has largely faded from modern memory, displaced by lemonade. Key’s working to change that. He decided it was ripe for a renaissance and that modern Americans would thirst for switchel in more ways than one.
Hoping to give the farmy drink a second chance at fame, he teamed up with Garrett Riffle, 26, and set to stirring. “We started brewing in my grandma’s big, red ol’ hay barn,” recalls Key. “She’s kind of a hard-ass—the first time she tried switchel, she said, ‘This tastes like shit!’ ” Key laughs.
In December production moved to Bushwick, and given the response, Brooklynites don’t agree with Grandma. Maybe that’s because Key and Riffle use raw, organic apple cider vinegar from the Finger Lakes (where Riffle grew up), maple syrup (from Vermont, natch) and fresh ginger (Hawaiian is their preferred source), all made by hand and sold in Mason jars.
Key says the drink cures more than just thirst. Maple syrup is mineral rich. Apple cider is generally good for what ails you. And ginger, he adds, “is an insane anti-inflammatory.”
Just a year after launching, their switchel can be found in 80 locations from New York to Vermont. Here, despite the lack of hayfields, it’s sold at Bedford Cheese, Stinky BKLYN, Union Market, Café Pedlar, Prospect Restaurant and the Green Grape. The 16- and 26-ounce Mason jars sell for $7 and $9.99—which means Key is now making hay in a whole new way.