Warning:The following recipe is for entertainment purposes only. The author is only responsible for his own bad decisions, not yours.
There’s nothing like a summer party, if you’re lucky enough to be in the woods. A big fire going, clear sky full of stars. A dozen of your friends mixing with a dozen people you don’t know. Everybody yelling rather than talking, because it’s that kind of night.
“Oh my God what is that?!”
“You’ve got to try it!”
“It tastes so good!”
It could be that it actually tastes good. Or that they are just happy. Either way, when you make your own liquor, a backwoods party will always show you love. Both verbally, and by drinking way too much of it. Nights to be remembered, or forgotten, but surely respun as tall tales.
Fast forward to the winter, when everyone is nestled away. I like to keep myself very busy, but I miss my friends. I miss those times. So I’ve picked up this hobby to remember them.
I’d always been intrigued by liquor making. My great grand Pappy ran a bootleg still “out da bush,” near the little patch town of Gowen City. I wish I knew the recipe. Then there’s Boilo— not technically moonshine, but crockpot liquor the Coal Region is proud of. It’s meant to put you down for the count. I’ve also been captivated by stories of what the old timers call “Birch.” Apparently it’s a liquor made from the sap of birch trees. (Perhaps the recipe died with an old coal miner, but if you know someone who knows it, please, share!)
Winter is the perfect time to make the nameless stuff; in this case, it’s the only time. Reason being, you’ve got to use the nighttime cold like an oven.
Here’s the recipe: First, you need a good bucket with a lid, and something that’ll let air out of it, but not back in. Then, you go and get the cheapest thing you can find to make juice out of. If you’re true country, you might have a crate of two of fruit you saved, but if you’re like the rest of us, the grocery store will have something on sale— preferably something interesting. Last year, I used pomegranate-apple-pear juice. This year, it’s apple juice and blueberries. Plus a few flavorful ingredients that will remain a secret.
You have to sterilize everything with heat, or chemicals (if you know where to get the right ones). Then throw in a little champagne yast, mix in a bag or of sugar, and seal it up. Left sit for a week or more, the yeast will do it’s bubbly magic, and you get wine that’s about 13% (26 proof) alcohol that’s still slightly sweet.
Now it’s time to watch the weather. Fifteen degrees and below is best. Let your bucket sit out overnight, and before you go to work in the morning, scoop out the ice. Take a minute to appreciate it, too, while watching the liquid drain from the crystals. You’re making the best of winter, preparing for more summer good times.
Doing this removes the water, creating what my coal region friends call “wine concentrate.” Keep it up until it won’t freeze anymore. With a good, frigid winter, the kind where your hands hurt and you’ve gotta cover your face just to go outside, you should be able to reduce it by three-quarters. That’s over 50% alcohol content (100 proof). Not that I keep track. Then all you’ve got to do is pour it into mason jars and let it age.
Just like you cook for your family, in anticipation of their enjoyment and comfort, I create this each step of the way thinking of my friends. I think of our fun, our parties, the warmth of the fires, the stories that don’t get old.
About 40 or so people I know from Philadelphia travel every year to the Pine Barrens in New Jersey, where the soil is flat and sandy, the pines short, the creek blood red from tannins. I shared mason jars of the drink all around a healthy fire, and there, somewhere remotely in the presence of the Jersey Devil, it was given it’s name: Redneck Cognac.