Tuesday, May 17, 2005


Once upon a time, I discovered that I was not cut out to be a moonshiner.

Wind the clock back to 1969 or early 1970. I’m a senior in high school, and my friend Walter has hit upon a venerable technique for making a Homemade Alcoholic Beverage.

Walter and his family spend a lot of time in Vermont, where it gets wicked cold in the dead of winter. Supposedly, the old-timers will take some hard cider, set it outside on a cold night, and the water will freeze out, leaving a core of unfrozen concentrated alcohol: Vermont Applejack.

We just had to test this theory out.

Step One. We procure several gallons of unfiltered apple cider and dump it into a tub in Walter’s basement. Because this stuff has been pasteurized, we decide to throw in a packet or two of Fleischmann’s yeast. We let this stuff sit…

…and after a week or two, we take a look. A handful of sugar thrown in to this bubbling witch’s brew causes an almost instantaneous volcano of foam. We figure the stuff is just about ready for…

Step Two. We fill a couple of gallon jugs with the evil Apple Wort and put it in Walter’s back yard on a cold, cold night. The next morning, we are dismayed to find that the stuff has refused to freeze. So: how to separate the alcohol from the rest of the mixture?

Simple (said Mr. Smart-Brains Elisson). We distill it. Now, as to the still, it never occurs to us that the best technology involves a pot with a nice long coil. That might actually involve Labor and Materials. No, we figure that since steam condenses on a cold plate, we can simply boil the mixture and condense the precious Booze Vapor on a cold plate.

To boil the mixture, we take Walter’s mother’s pressure cooker. We figure on using the pressure release valve opening to direct the flow of the steam right on to the cold plate.

So we put the pressure valve on and start the brew a-boiling. Once we get the thing up to five pounds of pressure, we figure it’s ready to go. So I get ready with the cold plate, and Walter yanks the little weight off the valve stem.

What we learn in the next three minutes is worth a whole semester’s worth of college lectures on the physics of superheated liquids.

Because (as anyone who is not a moron should know before messing with a pressure cooker), when you have five pounds of positive steam pressure on that pot, the liquid is considerably hotter than 212°F, the boiling point of water at room temperature. That’s the whole point of a pressure cooker: the higher temperature cooks food much faster.

And when you suddenly drop the pressure to One Atmosphere, every ounce of the superheated liquid in that pot starts to boil instantly.

What this meant is, suddenly there was a jet of superheated Fermented Apple Mash mixed with steam, rocketing through that valve opening at roughly the speed of sound. All I could do was control its direction by holding my ridiculous Cold Plate over the opening like a rocket’s blast deflector. By turning the plate, I could aim the stream anywhere I wanted. The kitchen sink was clearly preferable to the Living Room…

…where Walter’s dad, a retired Water Cop, was asleep on the sofa.

To this day, I have no idea how Walter Senior slept through the violent events of that afternoon, what with the screaming (of Walter’s mother and sisters), the hysterical laughter (of Walter and me), the jet-aircraft sound of the Boiling Mash Jet, and the dense, steamy, pungent fog of Fermented Apple that permeated the whole house. Perhaps the alcohol had affected his dad’s higher nervous system or something…but Walter and I knew that if he woke up and saw what we were up to, we were certifiably Dead Meat. Walter Senior was a no-nonsense guy, and this was nonsense of the highest order.

Somehow or other, we got the mess cleaned up without having been scalded to death…and without waking Walter Senior, which would have been just as bad. For weeks afterward, there was an unmistakable apple pong in the house.

The net fruit of our labors was about 5 cc’s of a clear liquid. It did not taste like applejack – or what we imagined applejack to taste like. It did not taste particularly good. After a few days, the remaining few drops grew some strange green fungus and we threw it out.

And when the weather is cold, perversely enough, I still smell apples.

Fermented apples.

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