Maybe you’re sick of kombucha. Maybe you’ve tried out every possible brand and flavor at Whole Foods and you’re tired of fighting your way through the tech bros and fitness influencers to the display case. Or maybe you’ve been making it at home. You’ve got your mother and your scoby and you’re delicately brewing some ‘booch up every week, but damn are you tired of babying it. Or maybe you’re the witch-y health food focused weirdo (we mean this with love) of your friend group. You’re crystal collection is strong and you always know about the next niche health craze.
Or maybe you just want a good cocktail. Either way, Sip City, D.C.’s first and only switchel company is coming for your business. Like kombucha, the switchel has a long (although fuzzy) history. Many websites claim it was brought to the colonies in the 17th century via the West Indies, while others claim it’s an Amish thing. Either way, it’s a drink with deep roots that farmers apparently loved.
And while you might not be a farmer (or maybe you are, I don’t know your story), we all love a good drink every now and then. So we called up Nicole Blank, founder of Sip City, to talk about how she discovered switchels, her run in with Michelle Obama and the best way to mix them with booze.
How did you start Sip City? Tell me about its origin story.
I guess to go all the way back to the beginning… I was going through this gut health journey after I graduated from college. I was a college athlete, I played soccer at Tufts and after graduating I was sitting in a newsroom for 9-10 hours a day. I got really into probiotics and prebiotics and things that would help my gut. I started brewing kombucha and ended up having to do a round of antibiotics for the bacteria overgrowth in my stomach.
With the probiotics and the prebiotics, did you learn about them from a doctor? Or was it stuff you were finding online?
It was a mix. My gut bacteria was out of whack, which is what I learned from my doctor. She put me on a round of antibiotics to help with that and then suggested I start taking probiotics and eating foods with large amounts of probiotics and prebiotics. During that time I started drinking a lot of kombucha and then realized that my kombucha habit was getting really expensive. That was a hard one to learn because I got really… Almost addicted to the taste of kombucha. It became a staple. My roommate and I were both really into drinking kombucha and we were like, “Let’s just start making it ourselves.” We started home brewing kombucha in our really drafty Boston apartment. It was awesome for a while, but it definitely takes a lot of time and effort. Between making it and bottling it and all the different filters and flavoring it. It wasn’t necessarily the solution I wanted to that expensive habit that I had. And I was really nervous about the bacteria growth because that Boston apartment was really drafty. I was nervous about things getting into our kombucha… And I didn’t love that there would always be an alcohol content. Especially because I had to be on all the time at work.
I was doing some research on some other gut healthy drinks and came across the switchel on a blog. I was like, “Oh, this is what I’m looking for.” It’s convenient, I can make it every morning before work and it takes five minutes. I had all the ingredients sitting in my pantry. It was super simple. So I started mixing it and fell in love with the taste of the drink, the history of the drink, how simple the ingredients were. Before long, I was bringing these jars in to work and people were asking me questions about what I was drinking and why was it brown. At the time I use maple syrup so it looked pretty funky looking. I eventually started selling some switchel under the table to my coworkers. I had a little lunchbox filled with mason jars and I’d bring them in.
Yeah, you had a moonshine business going on.
Yup, a little moonshine business in the PBS room where I’d sell switchel and smoothies and weird concoctions. I’d experiment with flavors and that was how the idea started. I was using switchel because it made me feel better and I realized quickly that on the weekends, I could mix it with alcohol. Me and my friends would be pregraming and I could use switchel as a chaser or as a mixer or drink it when I got home after a long night out. Early on, I figured out how versatile switchel was. It’s been around for so many centuries, so the use cases have been documented for centuries, so it was really easy to make that connection.
Why do you think switchel hasn’t caught on the way kombucha has?
I don’t think people really know what it is. Kombucha has also been around for centuries, if not thousands of years, and in the past 5-10 years it’s been booming and now it’s kind of at its peak boom. I think switchel, drinking vinegars and all these apple cider vinegar drinks are not far behind it. The industry is definitely waiting to see what happens with them.
Would you say a switchel is similar to a shrub?
People ask me that a lot. So a shrub isn’t ready to drink, it’s a concentrate and because it’s a concentrate it tends to be heavy on the sugar and really fruit forward. It’s basically a syrup you add seltzer or water to. Because it’s so sugary, it’s not what I look for when I want a gut healthy drink. So, switchel all the way. When you’re looking for something more concentrated because you’re trying to make batch cocktails. shrub is where to go.
When did you take it from being a hobby to being a full-time job?
I was living in Boston when I discovered switchel and started selling it and I moved out to D.C. last June. My boyfriend and I had been dating for a few years and he moved down here a year before I did. Post-election, I wanted to be around the people I love. So we did a year of long distance and then I moved to D.C. I thought I would just find a political news job and was interviewing in newsrooms, but I felt like I didn’t want to be back in a newsroom, especially in D.C. right now. I was looking for other opportunities within my skill set, so anything media related or writing related. Anything creative that would keep me happy and my brain occupied. Then I came across Union Kitchen because I was looking at Cava and a few other food companies based in D.C. It was like… There’s something in place for people like me who have all these ideas but may need help executing them and making that concept become a product on shelves. I read about TasteLab, I read about Union Kitchen and all these food incubators and then quickly realized I could turn my switchel thing into and actual business. In August of last year I pitched Union Kitchen and joined their accelerator program. That’s when it all went from being a thing in my head to an actual concept. I spent a few months trying to figure out what production would look like and what the branding would look like and what kind of company I wanted it to be and then it launched in stores on January 21st of this year.
What’s a normal day like for you?
It varies. I’m delivering purchase orders, we launched this online delivery service that we’re testing out… So it’s dropping off six packs at people’s apartments, connecting with people, planning events, running all the social media, doing demos all across the DMV. We do a ton of events and we’re really careful about partnering with likeminded people with similar missions. We try to make sure everything is mission driven. Everyday is really different and you kind of wake up not knowing what the day is going to look like and start every week not knowing what that week is going to look like, which is fun but also pretty daunting.
You have three recipes on the website, how long did it take you to finalize them? Which one was the most difficult to nail down?
I’ve been tinkering with those three recipes for years now. For a long time I’ve just been throwing anything I have into my juicer and playing around with mixing flavors. I found a few that stuck, or flavor combos that I love but never measured everything out. For me, it was just throwing things in and seeing what worked and what didn’t. Last summer we spent a lot of time juicing things, measuring things, writing down recipes and tinkering. Getting the ration right was really important. It took a few months of testing everything and getting those ratios down.
The Boston was definitely the trickiest because in addition to our base of apple cider vinegar, ginger, lemon, honey and water, we added turmeric, black pepper, cayenne, cinnamon and orange. Getting the spices right so that none of them were overpowering each other and figuring out a filtration system so you’re not getting sediment at the bottom… We have a really clear product so there’s no sediment in there. That’s one of my problems with kombucha, there’s weird things floating around in it. So getting The Boston nailed down was probably the hardest one.
Will you be adding a fourth switchel anytime soon?
Yeah. I have a list of recipes on my computer and they are ready to go. It’s just figuring out when to launch. We launched with three flavors with a weird product that people haven’t heard of, so we’re getting people accustomed to these flavors before we start introducing anything new.
Are you particular about what apple cider vinegar you use?
We’re getting our apple cider vinegar from California right now, but the goal down the line is to use local Virginia apples and make that vinegar in-house. That will come a little later because we’re self funded and I never want the cost of my product to get above $3.99. I really want it to be an accessible product for people.
What would the dream be for Sip City?
The dream is for switchel and Sip City to take off in the way kombucha has. Switchel, for me, has made my life so much better and I would love for people all over the country to have that experience as well. I think there’s such a rich history behind the drink that there’s the opportunity for it to be really mainstream. I would love to see that happen. The dream is to get people really onboard with our mission, which is to help people drink more mindfully in the same way that they’re eating and exercising mindfully. That was the original intent behind the company. Whether you’re chugging coffee with creamer or drinking rail cocktails, those things affect your health. For some reason there’s a disconnect. Drinks don’t have to have artificial ingredients. You can keep things natural.
How would you quantify those goals? Would it be seeing Sip City in every Whole Foods in the US? Would it be having a thousand different Sip City copycats pop up because switchel is so popular?
There’s a lot of moments even six months in that feels like, “Holy shit, I did it!” Whether it’s launching or selling our first 100 bottles or selling our first 1000 bottles. So I think as you grow, those goals grow. Getting it into a specialty chain store like a Whole Foods or a Mom’s or something like that is definitely high on that list and will feel like a big success. I think because I don’t have experience in this field, launching into hard quantifiable goals is a hard thing to imagine. It’s hard to imagine what that future is. I’ve always kind of jokes that it’s when Michelle Obama is holding my switchel or it’s when Kendall Jenner picks it up on her way to barre class, or whatever. But I think it’s a feeling more than a stat or a number.
Hey, Michelle Obama and Kendall Jenner are definitely quantifiable goals!
I hear that the Kardashians drink vinegar, so that’s the dream, to get them on board.
Yeah, that sounds like something they’d be into.
I was close to Michelle Obama. I was demo-ing at a SoulCycle class in the West End and she happened to be getting out of a class at the same time. We smiled at me and my booth, but I didn’t get to give her a taste. That’s the next goal.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
The amazing people I get to connect with everyday and the amazing networks that I’ve made for myself. I’m new to D.C. and I kind of jumped into this unknown and I’ve met the most incredible women I never would have imagined my life would be like this when I left Boston. Everyday I’m surrounded by a support system of incredible women who are doing amazing things. Whether it’s Rebecca from Swapples or Renee from Amäzi or Danielle Vogel who runs Glen’s. Being tapped into this really innovative and collaborative community is really life changing for me.
If you could hop in a time machine and go back through time, what advice would you give to your pre-Sip City self?
I think that we’ve gotten this far because there were so many unknowns. I don’t think I would informed myself about any of those things because it’s been such a journey and it’s been really fun figuring things out as we go. I think one thing I would have done was talked more to more people in the space, especially women and especially women my age, about how to emotionally support yourself while running a business. I jumped into it without thinking about that. I was alone and there were all these nonstop challenges that were physically demanding and emotionally demanding.
You’ve done switchel cocktails at BYT events, but are there any good cocktail / switchel recipes you recommend for someone who is picking up a six-pack for the first time?
My go to liquor of choice is tequila or mezcal and my go to switchel cocktail is a three to one ration of switchel to tequila made with the Boston. I like a spicy margarita. A friend of mine makes Modern Bar Cart, which are sold throughout D.C., and I use his chocolate bitters, just two drops. It’s the easiest cocktail and it’s exactly what I want on a Friday after a long week.