New to MoM, the fiery Mother Root Ginger Switchel combines a 17th century recipe with the 21st century rise of delicious zero ABV drinks. We chat to founder Bethan Higson about how becoming a mother inspired her, the health benefits of a switchel and taking her creation worldwide.
I usually only reserve the term ‘mouthfeel’ for describing drinks. However, on this occasion I’d also argue that saying the word ‘switchel’ feels good on the lips, tongue and teeth. It certainly beats ‘ginger-water’, ‘switchy’ and ‘haymaker’s punch’, three other terms that this – until recently – long-forgotten vinegar-based drink went by in the American colonies during the late 17th century.
I say until recently because in 2019, Bethan Higson released Mother Root, an elixir made up of organic apple cider vinegar, blossom honey, ginger juice, ginger extract and capsicum extract. When she was pregnant with her first child in 2015, Higson became very aware, very quickly, of the lack of non-alcoholic liquid on the market (this was pre-Seedlip). On a quest to find ways of bringing acidity into her drinks, she stumbled across an article in The New York Times, ‘Dropping Acid’, that explored the world of drinking vinegars – and the switchel came into her consciousness.
“I started to research and came across these old shrub recipes,” she explains. “They had the complex flavour profiles that I love in Champagne and Riesling, that balance between sweet and sour characters. I tried them and they were amazing, so I just started making them for my own benefit.”
It wasn’t until she became pregnant with her second child however that she decided to turn her homemade shrubs into a brand. She booked a spot at the Peckham Christmas Market (Pexmas, love it) to give herself a goal and made 180 bottles – they sold out in less than two days. Now, Higson makes around 3,500 bottles every few months. Not too shabby for a drink that’s been out of the spotlight for four centuries.
Old world meets new
This isn’t Higsons’ first rodeo in the world of drinks. “I studied languages at university, French and Italian, and I really wanted to work in an industry where I could use them. An opportunity came up where I could work for a wine PR brand and they needed a French speaker. I knew I liked wine, but I didn’t know anything about the trade. I fell in love with the business straight away because it’s all about the stories behind the products, the people. With wine and craft beverages in general, it’s the care and attention of the people, their love of the land, and the simple ingredients that you take for granted but people obsess over. That romanticism was amazing.”
She stayed in the industry working for the likes of Sopexa, LVMH and Champagne Devaux and then she fell pregnant and her sights turned to the no-ABV space. “I love ginger for a start and ginger beers are never gingery enough for me, so when I heard about the switchel I was fascinated.”
The origins of the switchel are largely unknown (the American Colonies, the Caribbean and ancient China are all mooted), but its existence in the USA is well documented in literature. Carrie takes a glass to Laura and Pa in one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, The Long Winter set in Wisconsin. While Herman Melville (best known for Moby Dick) writes about it in I and My Chimney: “I will give a traveler a cup of switchel, if he want it.”
What we do know is that it was often consumed by farmers in the long hot summers due to its thirst-quenching and refreshing powers – and tales of those farmers carrying them in the fields in mason jars and keeping them chilled in cold streams abound. Variations emerged in various regions with the likes of molasses being used in the south, and maple syrup in the east, and then they fell out of fashion when refrigeration and access to refined sugars became possible.
When Higson discovered them during her research, it quenched her thirst for an alternative to booze: “Alcohol is not the prerequisite to quality – I liked having that problem to solve.”
The choice of a ginger switchel was two-fold: “I love ginger for a start – ginger beers are never gingery enough for me – and I thought that ginger had the added benefit of having a warming finish which you miss when you’re not having a drink. It makes you sip it more slowly.”
There are also the numerous health benefits associated with both apple cider vinegar and ginger. Oh, and there’s one more benefit: I’ve found that it works a treat on a hangover. Higson laughs when I make my confession: “My sister says that too! Apple cider vinegar is actually said to balance your blood sugar, because alcohol really messes with your blood glucose levels.” It’s also good for settling the stomach, making Mother Root a great choice for an aperitif.
When it comes to making it, Higson develops the recipe in her kitchen, while production takes place at a small husband and wife-run manufacturer just outside London. Apple cider vinegar is macerated with the ginger before being sweetened with blossom honey, lightly filtered and then bottled, all in small batches. It’s a simple recipe but one that requires the use of high-quality ingredients. “It’s a relatively simple drink to make, but the complexity comes in with choosing the right ingredients. When I was going through the process we went through 20 different iterations of tiny differences – ‘should we us this honey, that honey’. Even if you just go into a supermarket you have about 12 different styles of honey and there is the minutiae of the aromas. That’s where you get the differences in quality and balance.”
When it comes to drinking Mother Root, Higson’s signature serve couldn’t be easier. Her Mother Root & Soda mixes one part Mother Root with four parts of soda water, garnish with a slice of orange and a sprig of rosemary. She explains that although the garnishes look good, they also help to build the flavour profile, with the addition of the savoury, herbal notes of the rosemary and the orange’s essential oils.
Other non-alcoholic and some alcoholic recipes on her site include the likes of a Hot Not Toddy, a Dry White that gives drinkers the option of adding Riesling wine, a Switch Cobbler using sherry and an Old Kyoto. Higson also likes it in her no-ABV riff on a Penicillin (a Pe-No-cillin). “I’m a huge whisky fan, so I mix lapsang souchong tea with Mother Root, lemon and honey – it makes a smoky, peaty and warming cocktail.”
Come summer, she’ll have more flavours to play with as she teases a new launch that will add a new string to Mother Root’s already popular bow. Until then, Higson is focusing on the constant growth of the original. “As we’re growing, I’m looking to offset my carbon emissions and then going forward, that sustainability piece will be more of an anchor.” She also has her sights on going international. Perhaps one day, Mother Root will find its way into the hands of a 21st century, Wisconsin farmer.