Drinking Shrubs and Switchels

No, I am not talking about the drinking evergreen bushes and twigs. Shrubs and Switchels are classic elixirs. Each use vinegar as the main ingredient to which a natural sweetener and other ingredients are added to create distinct flavor combinations. Shrubs consist of vinegar (many different types can be used), fruit and/or herbs, and natural sweetener, and are added to water and other drinks. Switchels are created from cider vinegar, natural sweetener, ginger and water. These ingredients create a standalone drink.

The word “shrub” can be traced to the Arabic word sharab, meaning “drink,” with “shrub” the first English translation traced to the London Gentleman’s Magazine in 1747.  Shrubs have been around for centuries, but their exact origin remains unclear. They may have risen from the Turkish beveragesherbet, but Shrubs, or similar vinegar drinks, can be traced to the ancient Middle East and Babylonia used to purify water to safe drinking levels. The Romans used a vinegar and water beverage called pocsa.  Early European sailors used a variation to prevent scurvy.  In Colonial America, shrubs were used as a way to preserve fresh produce during off-seasons.  Martha Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson were said to be shrub consumers and vinegar drinks gained popularity during the Temperance movement as an additive to soda water in place of alcoholic beverages.

The origin of Switchel is also ambiguous. Switchel has been linked to the Ancient Greek oxymel, a medicinal mixture of water, honey, and vinegar and was also used in the West Indies and Caribbean in the 16th and 17th century; in Amish communities; and finally made an appearance in Colonial America during the late 1600s following molasses trading.  In 18th century New England, Switchel was popular among hay farmers as an alternative to water to quench thirst and cool farmers down during fall harvest.  It was aptly nicknamed ‘Haymaker’s Punch.’ Its popularity continued in to the early 19th century among New England college students where it was mixed with rum, while, during the same time period, other Americans used it as an antidote to strong drink.

While the roots of Shrubs and Switchels appear to run deep, their popularity diminished with the creation and convenience of soda and store-bought fruit juices. However, recent media attention and health claims have spearheaded a resurgence of popular interest in the drinks. While these drinks boast many health claims, such as easing pain and inflammation, restoring electrolytes, lowering cholesterol, or aiding digestion, the health benefits are usually attributed to one ingredients and not the drink as a whole. Most commonly, the health benefits stem from vinegar. So, I was interested to see if they hype around vinegar holds up.

“Let’s Talk Vinegar”, was posted to this blog by Hannah Ostogaard, RD about a year ago. Hannah mentioned the polyphenols and vitamin content in vinegar may defend against oxidative stress by serving as antioxidants; the acetic acid content in vinegar may reduce the effects of diabetes by slowing the breakdown of dietary starch and in return controlling blood sugar levels; and promoting weight loss by acting as an appetite suppressant. Beyond these health claims, current literature shows consuming vinegar is said to boost therapeutic qualities on potentially debilitating conditions, including diabetes, cardiovascular disorders, and hypertension.  Vinegar is also promoted for its antioxidant properties and potential effect on overall fat mass reduction.

My exploration of the literature turned up a couple of things to be aware of before consuming vinegar. Researchers have connected vinegar consumption to weakening tooth enamel; nausea and indigestion, lowered potassium levels, and drug interactions.  However, many of these complications have only been reported once and are often a result of consuming large amounts of vinegar over many years.

My two-main take-a-ways:

  1. Less is more, because more may be harmful to your health.
  2. Drinking vinegar, like many naturopathic remedies, lacks sufficient scientific research and needs further investigation before any “cure all” claims can be validated.

While health claims may need to be taken with a grain of salt, I was curious to see if the vinegar drinks are easy to make and worth their reappearance in popular opinion.

Making Shrubs

There are two methods to making shrub, the hot method and the cold method. The hot method produces a less acidic and fruit – herb flavored shrub and it is much quicker to make. While the cold method creates a shrub with a little more bite (acidic bite) and a fuller, bright fruity- herb flavor.  I decided to make a spin off a basil and marionberry shrub, and created a pineapple + basil in apple cider vinegar concoction using the cold-method.

Pineapple Basil Shrub – Cold Method

Ingredients Needed

  • ½ cup pineapple, chopped and smashed
  • ¼ cup basil leaves, chopped
  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • ½ cup honey
  • 1 airtight, quart sized, glass jar


  1. Thoroughly wash jars before adding vinegar mixture.
  2. Chop and smash pineapple and pick apart and chop basil.
  3. Combine all ingredients into a large bowl, stir until well combined.
  4. Transfer mixture into jar.
  5. Screw on lids and SHAKE IT, baby!
  6. Let sit at room temperature for 1 week, shaking it daily.
  7. After 1 week, using a mesh strainer or cheese cloth, strain out the pineapple and basil.
  8. Pour infused vinegar back into the jar.
  9. Add honey equally and shake again.
  10. Refrigerate for 1 week, shaking daily until honey is dissolved.

Serving the Shrub

  • Fill a glass with ice. Add 1 ounce shrub (or more to taste).
  • Top with sparkling water.
  • Stir.
  • Enjoy!

Note: The shrub should keep in the refrigerator for up to six months, but toss it if the mixture begins too bubble or gets slimy.  An 8 oz glass has about 75 calories, primarily from carbohydrates.

Making Switchels

A classic Switchel is made in multiple gallon batches and carried into the hay field in ceramic jugs. As mentioned, it is made with cider vinegar, sweetener, ginger, and water. The traditional sweetener was molasses, but as drink gained popularity, the sweetener varied due to geographical location; honey in the south and maple syrup in northern areas.

Sticking true to tradition, I created a classic Switchel using molasses.

Classic Switchel

Ingredients Needed

  • 5 cups cold water
  • ½ cup blackstrap molasses
  • ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
  • 3 tbsp ginger, ground
  • 1 airtight, quart sized, glass jar


  1. In large container, add all ingredients.
  2. Mix thoroughly.
  3. Pour into jars, jugs, or bottles.
  4. Refrigerate overnight.

Serving the Switchel

  • Fill a glass with ice.
  • Shake Switchel.
  • Pour over ice.
  • Enjoy!

Note: The Switchel should keep refrigerated for up to a month.  An 8 oz serving has about 110 calories and is a significant source of potassium, with over 500 mg per serving.

Taste Test

Here are the results of a taste test of the Shrub and Switchel, done by fellow dietetic interns:
  • They described the switchel as tasting similar to a liquid ginger snap cookie (but less sweet and stronger ginger flavor); ginger beer; and a Moscow Mule. I am thinking the cider vinegar added the “citrus” component of the common drink. The drink did not have a strong acidic value, but it provided a “bite” because of the ginger.
  • The entire group, including myself, agreed the switchel provided a fresh, rich taste.
  • They described the shrub as tasting similar to a fermented drink like kombucha. It had an acidic component and fermented taste of kombucha, but was less sweet than a commercially produced product.
  • The herbal notes (basil in this case) overpowered the fruit flavor (pineapple).
  • The entire group, including myself, preferred the shrub over the switchel and agreed the shrub had a bright, acidic taste.

If you are not up to the adventure of creating your own vinegar drinks, but are still interested in trying one, you can find vinegar tonics at the grocery store. Common Shrub brands include Suja, Kevita, and Bragg. Common Switchel brands include Cide Road, Kinetic, and Up Mountain Switchel. However, be sure to inspect the label. Take note of the sugar content. Look for no added fruit juice or added sugar, and watch for the serving sizes.

Shrubs and Switchels are naturally tangy beverages with rich histories. They make consuming vinegar more palatable by reducing its natural acid content, but research has proven inconclusive on healthful claims and caution should be taken when classifying them as naturopathic remedies. With health in mind, I have begun creating and adding these vinegar drinks to my diet, but as with any food or beverage, moderation is key. It is important to find a healthful balance and ensure whatever you chose to eat, or in this case drink, nourishes your mind, body, and soul.

Copyright: All content © 2010-2018 Nutrition Strategy Advisors LLC. Photographs © Donna P Feldman, unless otherwise attributed. Reproduction or use without permission is prohibited.