This New-Old Drink at Montana’s Trail House Takes Four Months to Make

Chef Nate Courtland makes the cocktail’s cider vinegar from scratch.

If the Appalachian Trail held a contest for an official cool-weather cocktail, our money would be on the Switchel Toddy at Montana’s Trail House.

A warm mug of bourbon, sage-cedar bitters and the newly cool, old-time quaff known as switchel, like the trail itself it’s a rustic lesson on the rewards of patience and hard work.

True, the switchel is a snap: a blend of vinegar and water, seasoned with New York State maple and a bright bite of fresh ginger. But at the Trail House — a woodsy tavern named after the 2,200-mile, Georgia-to-Maine pathway that crosses the Hudson up near Harriman State Park — it takes at least four months to produce, since chef Nate Courtland makes the cider vinegar from scratch.

Courtland, one of four partners behind the year-old restaurant, first made vinegar while in the kitchen at al di la Trattoria in Park Slope, where “dregs of wine” were always hanging around after service, he says. At Montana’s, as he did as the head chef of Fort Greene’s ICI, he’s tinkered with other kitchen scraps, making vinegars from crabapples, rhubarb or pear peels, and a fermented ghost pepper hot sauce in neon orange.

Thus far the cider vinegar for switchel is his biggest production — he’s just cured 20 gallons of raw apple juice procured from the Hudson Valley’s Wilklow Orchards in October — but like fermentation itself, it’s still a work in progress.

With help from a mother gifted from friends at Kombucha Brooklyn, the Trail House has made vinegar from both juice and cider from various apples, each with different sugar contents or natural yeasts. A few are aged in glass carboys or plastic tubs, others with a bit of rosemary. The best so far take on a bit of extra woodsiness from a stint in repurposed whiskey barrels from Kings County Distillery, which are stored in a cubbyhole above the lobby door — though it takes a little longer to acidify before it can be blended with water, ginger and maple to officially become the drink called switchel.

Each vinegar has different flavors, but all are bracing and restorative — a straight shot of switchel has become one of bar manager/partner Austin Hartman’s biggest sellers. Beyond the toddy, which is garnished with a skewer of candied ginger and a cinnamon stick, it’s served with rum and ginger beer in the Storm Scout, with seltzer, citrus and a spirit in switchel cocktails, or as a “Switch Back” — a shot of whiskey followed by one of switchel.

A former drink-maker at Williamsburg’s Hotel Delmano, Hartman is no slouch in the DIY department either: He makes the sage-cedar bitters in the toddy, adding a touch of anise hyssop from the patio garden, various seasonal syrups, tinctures and infusions and the cinnamon-vanilla-cranberry grenadine that appears in drinks like the Night Tripper, made with tequila, Yellow Chartreuse and a dash of those forest-friendly bitters.

The idea of making things from scratch — or remaking them from scraps — was exactly what Trail House founder Montana Masback had in mind when he started the place last spring, tapping Courtland, Hartman and an artist friend named Denis Bramley to help him realize his vision.

Masback grew up near the Appalachian Trail in Nyack, NY, working with his father’s construction and design company since the time he was a kid. He purposely modeled his dark-wood restaurant, built with planks from an old Kentucky barn, after both the trail’s can-do spirit and its rustic hiker shelters, which were “a place,” says Masbach, “to share a bowl of beans or a book or a song or a story.”

And, of course, a steaming, spicy mug of Trail House Switchel Toddy.

Photo credit: Scott Gordon Bleicher

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Rachel Wharton is the former deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award, holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, and has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and reporter. A North Carolina native and a former features food reporter for the New York Daily News, she edited the Edible Brooklyn cookbook and was the co-author of both Handheld Pies and DiPalo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. Her work also appears in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Saveur.