By Cold, Hard Football Facts sud stud Lew Bryson
"Do you like apples?"
"Well, I got her number. How ya like them apples?"
                                                     – Matt Damon, jerking around Scott Winters in "Good Will Hunting"
Hope you got your fill of apples this fall. The Stayman Winesaps were crisp, the Macoun's ivory flesh was smooth and delicate, and a new variety, the Honeycrisps, were great. Can't wait till next year when the damned price comes down on those; they're still kinda spendy.
But you know... I'd rather drink corn likker than eat corn bread any day, and drinking beer or Scotch is a hell of a lot more fun than eating beef 'n' barley soup. If I could make liquor out of bacon ... hoo, how sweet would that be? So drinking apples is a natural, and this is the right time of year to talk about it.
What brought apples to mind was a jug of sweet cider my dad brought down. My parents live in Amish country in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and Sir – it's what I call him; deal with it – brought me a gallon jug of cider from Kauffman's Fruit Farm. I'd give you a link, but they're Amish, and you can't access the site unless your computer has a beard.
They regularly sell 25-plus different varieties of apple in the course of a season at Kauffman's – you're lucky if you get 10 at your local market – and they press their own cider. It's damned good cider.
It kinda got stuck in the back of the fridge, though, and when I returned from three days in Manhattan for WhiskyFest, the cider was sitting out in the garage with the cap half-cocked. Hmmmm ... Hey, Sir!
Sure enough, a wonderful thing had happened in that jug: It turned to alcohol! (Guess Kauffman's doesn't believe in pasteurization. Thank God. What a load of bull that whole scare was.)
Under the wrack of barm (yeasty sludge) on top of the liquid was a nice hard cider, lightly fizzy, tangy-tart, and buzzing with about 4 percent alcohol. I had two glasses with a grilled pork dinner.
Real farm cider is hard to find these day, unfortunately. There's a lot to be said for a good natural farm cider, fizzing on the tongue a bit. But with the panic-stricken, squeaky-clean cider regime these days, you're either going to have to find an Amish man or dose the cider with yeast yourself, and that's so iffy it's hardly worth the trouble. My grandfather had a cider press, and I'm tempted to dig it out and give it a go ... but making cider is a lot of work. Hard, physical work – just the kind I went into writing to avoid.
It's not that easy, anyway. My mom got me a copy of "The American Cider Book" by Vrest Orton; with a name like that, you figure he's not going to lie about it. Orton talks about making cider, and I'll tell you, it's got "forget all that and pay someone else to do it" written all over it. Wash the apples – 100 pounds for 8 gallons of cider – crush the apples with a damned stone wheel in a trough and then layer the resulting pomace into a block in the cider press and squeeze hell out of it. Work, I tell ya!
But I remember nights running my grandfather's press and how incredible that fresh-pressed cider tasted. So maybe I'll get some apples and have them pressed at some Amish guy's farm. Okay, I've got cider. Assuming I can keep my greedy guts from drinking it all as fresh, sweet cider (which is a great side-by-side with Guinness, by the way), I'm just a couple days away from good-drinking hard cider. The yeast needed to turn the cider into (what Americans call) "hard" cider is in there: Due to some marvelous act of God, cider yeast grows on apple skins. So just let it sit in a cool cellar (or my garage, this time of year; thanks, Sir), and you'll have the stuff.
Or you can just go buy it, which is even easier ... if you know what to buy. The "ciders" you'll find on the shelf in most of your common booze shops, Groundhog, Ace, HardCore or the like, are sweet, crisp and boozy, to be sure, but they're not farm cider. I have yet to taste an American-made cider that comes within sniffing distance of a solid Norman cidre. Say what you will about the French – no, really, go ahead, I'll wait...
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Got that out of your system? Good. Anyway, say what you will about 'em, but the French do know their way around an apple, or at least the Norman French do. If you tour the D-Day invasion beaches of Normandy, for example, you'll see little farmhouse cider makers everywhere. In fact, Normandy is a big place. The invasion beaches are in a region of Normandy called Calvados. And if you pick up a bottle of something called Calvados, it's apple brandy from Normandy.
The only stuff I've been able to find here with any regularity is the Domaine Dupont, from Pays d'Auge, but that's okay with me, because it's excellent, in all its forms.
The Brits, of course, are known for cider, but I've found that most of it that makes it over here falls into the same "sweet-crisp-boozy" category as ours ... with the exception of Aspall Cyder, which is effin' brilliant. The same family's been making it since 1729, so they should have gotten it right, eh? Aspall, like good farm cider, has a bit of a bite to it. It's hard to find but worth the trouble.
Back to our own jug of hard cider, though. Keep it till winter, and you can make Jersey Lightning: applejack, distilled by freezing the water out of it. That's how things may have started at Laird's, America's oldest distillery, where they've been making applejack since 1780. It's tucked away in Scobeyville, a rural corner of New Jersey, and the Lairds still own and run things, a ninth-generation family business.
They don't actually distill in Scobeyville anymore; that's done down at the distillery outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, where the apples are. But they still age the apple brandy in Jersey, and the smell of a warehouse full of it is just fantastic.
It takes 7,000 pounds of apples to make one barrel of apple brandy. One bottle of Laird's Applejack has six pounds of apples, but that's a blended product; it's 35 percent apple brandy and 65 percent grain neutral spirits. I'm drinking Laird's Bottled in Bond 100-proof Straight Apple Brandy as I write this: 20 pounds of apples in one bottle. I figure that's at least a month's worth of keeping the doctor away – which is fortunate, because if the quack were here, he'd want me to share, and this stuff's just too good.
There's one more apple thing you ought to know about, and that's Berentzen Apfelkorn, the best damned apple schnapps on the planet. That's what I'm running in my flask right now, and it's been a very popular shared sip; I know what I'm getting some folks for Christmas, that's for sure. Berentzen is actually made from apples, and it has that great sweet/tart snap of a good apple without being syrupy or overly boozy. It's a great after-dinner sip, a good nip from the flask in autumn (it'll be Redbreast Irish whiskey come December), and if you really want to make an Appletini – God help you – at least do it right.
Apples make good pies, but they make pretty damned good booze, too.