1773, The Colonies
IT’S FALL, AND your orchards are bare. There’s a nip in the air already, and you’ve got your glass casks of apple juice sitting in the cellar, letting time and the new world’s wild yeasts slowly turn it into bubbling cider. Some of that you’ll drink soon, pouring it into mugs for your thirsty neighbors as they help you sort out the last of your late harvest before the frost takes it — that is, if they haven’t rambled off to take part in the politics of seeking independence from Britain. But most of that juice, you hope, is destined for another fate, one longer in the offing but well worth the effort. It requires only that the world continue to turn and the seasons continue to change, as they always have done, for free. No matter how much you’re taxed on tea.
The leaves all around your farm have turned to flame, and first frosts of a harsh New England winter will come soon enough. Your cows will freeze — your toes, too — and the ground soon will be covered with a blanket of snow that will fail to melt and eventually harden into a layer of rock-hard, lethal ice. And then you’ll take those casks of cider outside; put them in the woodshed, maybe; and let the damned icy cold help you out for once, freezing the water in that cider into a layer of brownish ice you’ll blithely pick off and toss away. What’s left is liquid gold: a strong, sweet concentrate of heady apple nectar that can get up to 40% alcohol by volume, and that you and yours refer to as “applejack.”
Sure, this homegrown production process (called “jacking,” which, in the late 1700s, is not funny at all) is a bit hardscrabble and happenstance, and without access to the fancy equipment those professional spirits-makers use, sometimes impurities are left in the brew (wicked substances called methanol, or esters, or aldehydes) that are toxic and might or might not occasionally make someone go blind or die. But times are tough, and you are self-sufficient. And it’s a tradition, here in the Colonies, to make moonshine from apples.
Some Scottish fellow in New Jersey called William Laird started producing the stuff professionally in 1698, when he brought his whiskey-making craft over the ocean and found a sea of apples waiting for him. His company will continue to do so, practically exclusively, until the early years of the new millennium. But you don’t have to buy milk, because you have a cow; you don’t have to buy eggs, because you have chickens; and you don’t buy someone else’s applejack, because you’ve got acres of apple trees just outside your back door. All you need are time and Mother Nature.
If you could see the future (which you can’t, or you’d be a much richer yeoman farmer than you are), you’d know that applejack’s popularity eventually would take a back seat to the glitz and glamour of wine, gin, beer and rum, until strange folk called “hipsters” would rediscover the value of things like hand-hewn ax handles, plaid flannel and humble applejack, and there would begin a bit of a resurgence in production. (Although, at that point, most producers would use the applejack name to refer to a mellower hybrid product that is roughly 20% distilled apple alcohol, filtered to remove all those aforementioned impurities, blended with neutral grain spirits and aged in oak.)
Pure applejack can be bracing, to put it mildly, but then again, you bathe only twice a year and don’t know that smoking tobacco is bad for you, so you hardly notice or care.
You sympathize with those who have begun to twitch under the Royal yoke — after all, those wine-swilling aristocrats are an ocean away; they can’t possibly understand what it’s like to carve out a life in the rocky, unforgiving soil of the Colonies. One day, people standing right where you are now will throw around the phrase “American as apple pie” to evoke you and your brethren, in your buckles and breeches, marching through streets in tricorn hats in pursuit of what some of the lads down at the pub are calling “freedom.” But you’d shake your head at that saying, because while pies are lovely and all, pies don’t fuel the fire in rebels’ eyes, a fire that says things like, “We’d really like to not pay these taxes.” No; that inner burn comes from the liquid you’ve got in your barn. “American as applejack,” should be the words.
You and your brethren can’t claim to have invented the stuff (the French, after all, produce something very similar, called Calvados, with their apples), but you have it on good authority that even the bigwigs on this side of the Atlantic are partial to it. General Washington, they say, is a fan, along with that Franklin fellow who has the printing press. Even old Will Laird’s descendant Robert Laird is among them, as a soldier and an applejack-supplier to the troops.
You don’t know any of those men personally, but they say some sensible things, after a glass or two of what you’re sipping now as you look out at the rusty-colored autumn on your fields. That glass of applejack is last fall’s product, the sweet, heady concentration of the year gone past. And in it, you can taste the golden promise of the future out there in your barn, waiting for the first snow.