Switching Up the Drinks Menu

In the world of beverages, everything old is new again. The cocktail revival of recent years has been matched by a revival of interest in old-fashioned, non-alcoholic refreshers. On food blogs, in restaurants and in modern cookbooks you’ll find recipes for herb or fruit-infused waters, fruit and vinegar combinations like shrub or schwitzel, fermented drinks such as root beers, kombucha, kvass and fly, and coolers based on homemade fruit or herb syrups.

As the holiday season approaches, when little kids and designated drivers will be among the merrymakers that crowd our living rooms, it’s a good idea to have some of these festive and delicious non-boozy alternatives ready to go.  

One of the quickest ways to make a simple and tasty beverage is to add sparkling water to syrup — birch or maple spring immediately to mind — stir, pour over ice and add a twist of lemon, lime or orange. For kids, such concoctions are a great alternative to pop or fruit juice, and they’re equally appealing to adults, especially if served in a wine or rocks glass.

Once you’ve tried ready-made syrups it’s an easy leap to start making your own. Northern herbs and berries make great syrups.

As a general rule, some fruits are juicier than others. Make fruit syrup by combining 1 part water and 2 parts chopped fruit or berries in a saucepan, bring to the boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes, strain. Add 1 cup sugar to 2 parts juice, bring to the boil again, reduce heat and simmer until syrupy,  about 10 to 15 minutes. Cool and refrigerate.

I try to keep a selection of three or four in the fridge at all times — right now we’ve got crabapple, spruce tip, fireweed and highbush cranberry on the go, plus a really nice ginger syrup my brother-in-law sent up from Parksville. When you’ve got a basic syrup pantry set up you can start mixing and matching right in the glass to create new flavours — experiment with crabapple and spruce tip, or Labrador tea and highbush cranberry, or rosehip and yarrow, for example. (Remember to write down the successful combinations so you can reproduce them.)

For years I’ve danced on the outskirts of learning to create fermented brews like root beer or kvass. I still haven’t ventured in, but I figure a good place to start is to experiment with drinks made from already-fermented materials like vinegar.

At a recent dinner celebrating the caribou harvest one of our hosts produced a big jugful of haymaker’s switchel, a cooling drink made with cider vinegar, ginger and molasses originally served to hay harvesters as they toiled under the hot sun. Switchel is said to have originated in the Caribbean — hence the ginger and molasses — and migrated to the United States in the 18th century.

At the harvest table the switchel had a stimulating, rather than a cooling, effect. The sourness of the vinegar, the bite of the ginger and the pungence of the molasses combined to wake up the appetite the same way wine does, and at the same provided a cleansing contrast to the rich flavours of meat and fat. With a bit of birch syrup subbing in for some of the molasses, switchel gets a boreal twist and becomes a great drink to accompany northern feasts and holiday celebrations.

Holiday Switchel

(Adapted from EatingWell.com)


9 cups (1.75 L) water, divided

1/4 cup (60 mL) minced fresh ginger

1/4 cup (60 mL) honey, birch syrup or maple syrup

1/4 cup (60 mL) molasses

3/4 cup (180 mL) lemon juice

1/4 cup (60 mL) cider vinegar

Cranberries, fresh mint sprigs or lemon slices for garnish.


Combine 3 cups water with ginger in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover and let infuse for 15 minutes.

Strain the ginger-infused water into a pitcher, pressing on the ginger solids to extract all the liquid. Add honey (or birch syrup or maple syrup) and molasses; stir until dissolved. Stir in lemon juice, vinegar and the remaining 6 cups water.

Chill until very cold, at least 2 hours or overnight.

Stir the punch and serve in tall glasses over ice cubes. Garnish with berries, mint sprigs or lemon slices, if desired.

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