Behind the Scenes With Up Mountain Switchel in Brooklyn

Behind the Scenes

Your ticket into the secret world of boozemaking.

[Photographs: Clay Williams]

If you're already over shrubs and heirloom ciders, maybe it's time for a glass of switchel. Never heard of it before? Switchel, also known as switzel, swizzle, or Haymaker's Punch, refers to the apple cider vinegar, water, and ginger-based drink found throughout America and the Caribbean during the 17th century and beyond. Both Laura Ingalls-Wilder and Herman Melville were fans, the latter mentioning it in the story "I and My Chimney." Unlike a shrub, switchel is mostly been consumed as a stand-alone drink, not a cocktail or bubbly-water addition. And while the switchel dates back several hundred years, it's on the rise again in Brooklyn thanks to Ely Key and Garrett Riffle's Up Mountain Switchel.

The Founders

In August 2010, Key, a native Manhattanite living with family in South Londonderry, Vermont, introduced his visiting friend Garrett Riffle to a glass of switchel, sweetened Vermont-style with maple syrup. (The version from the Southeast usually utilizes molasses, while the Mid-Atlantic turns to honey.) Riffle liked it right away, and the duo was inspired to start developing their own recipe.

Farmers of 18th century praised to the thirst-quenching effect of the drink, as well as the throat-soothing qualities of cider vinegar and stomach-calming properties of ginger. Recipes, of course, varied by the makers' preferences, and in the Bahamas, switchel was often made with rum due to the lack of potable water. The drink ultimately fell out of favor, lacking the friendly appeal of sweeter beverages like orange juice and lemonade.

Key and Riffle explored different proportions and brewing methods, ultimately deciding upon organic and raw apple cider vinegar from upstate New York—Riffle's native stomping grounds—mixed with Vermont maple syrup made by a friend who puts aside barrels for them, and fresh ginger (they prefer deep yellow Hawaiian.)

The first batch, complete with hand drawn labels made the night before in a bar, went to the local Vermont farmers' market on June 2, 2012. "We spent $300 that first time and made $500," remembers Key. They spent the summer fine-tuning the recipe based on customer feedback while living in Key's parents' barn and working in his grandmother's. By the end of the season in October, they had amassed 15 local accounts and knew there was a decision to be made: "We couldn't spend the winter living together in a barn. We could go north to Burlington, or south to Brooklyn," says Key.

The same weekend a decision was needed, they received their first big investment from a first time market customer, and south to Brooklyn they went. For two months they hopped around borough's commercial kitchens before Robert Stout of King's County Jerky let them use space at his Bushwick production spot, where they've been working ever since.

Want to see how Up Mountain Switchel is made? Head over to the slideshow »

The switchel—packaged in sturdy Mason jars not out of hipness but because the drink is bottled hot—can be found at specialty shops in New York City and Vermont, as well as on the Up Mountain website.