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The craic with applejack

Outdoor Living

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

Country wines are not, in general, a whole lot of fun. Wine, or some form of alcoholic concoction, can easily be made at home from virtually anything, with the best results being obtained from elderflowers, blackcurrants and blackberries, in that order. Any other principle ingredient is mildly amusing at best and alarmingly repellent at worst. I remember our last tasting session, or the beginning of it, at least. The eagerness with which James had sampled bottle after bottle had led inevitably to confusion.
“Wash that parshnip, or rhuharb? Better try ‘em together, shee if it makes a differensh.”
Parsnips should be mashed and fed to small children, or left whole and fed to sheep, and the application of rhubarb ought to be confined to those in the habit of eating too much red meat. Indeed, the consumption of more than a small amount of rhubarb gives an almost immediate understanding as to why its roots are called stools and why it is equipped with such large, tough and absorbent leaves.
Enough! Having friends who find as much pleasure in sharing their home-made wines as they do in making them, we have been called upon to judge so-called beverages made from potato (generally not good) carrot (the same) elderberry (mostly stomach-shuddering) and many others, and have suffered accordingly, and have learned to grade them by the intensity of migraine they induce. The worst by a clear mile was one of my own, made from cucumbers, which nobody could taste without blinking, and which nobody could drink!
So imagine my delight when one of my friends, whom we shall call ‘A’, landed at my door with a rather elegant looking bottle bearing a simple label marked ‘Merlot 2018’, which he handed over with the words “See what you think of my latest.” That bottle sat on the shelf for a full two weeks before I pulled the cork. The fumes that emanated from within suggested another two weeks, or perhaps considerably longer, might have helped the contents achieve their full potential.
That said, we decanted the wine and left it beside an open window to air (sorry, breathe!) for an hour or so before settling down for the evening. Feedback was required, of course. “It was a lovely bottle,” I said, diplomatically placing the emphasis on the adjective rather than on the noun (to which it properly belonged), and took a quick side step into the state of the Irish sea bass fishery to avoid a detailed and potentially embarrassing post mortem.
The next time we met ‘A’ pressed another bottle into my hand, this one filled with liquid amber.
“What is it?” I asked, rather doubtfully.
“Applejack,” he said. “The real stuff, like we used to make in Australia. Apple wine that’s been through the freezer to get the excess water out – gives it a bit of body – it’s just the thing for a cold winter day.”
I kept this until James came around, found two pint glasses and divided the bottle between them. It was thick and syrupy, oozed rather than poured, and smelled very good indeed.
“Great,” said James. “Cider. Just the job.” He tipped his glass and drained it in one, then licked his lips.
I tasted mine. “It’s very sweet. What do you think?”
James’s eyes were already glazing over. “Itsh pretty shtrong shtuff,” was all he said.
It was indeed. I tried to explain the science of it. “You make your wine and put it in the deep freeze. The water turns to ice, but the alcohol remains in liquid form. Best of all,” I held my glass up to the light, “all the colour and every bit of flavour stays with the alcohol, so it gets super-concentrated. If you freeze it more than once you can get almost every bit of excess water out, and you’re left with a very strong drink indeed.”
James’s head was beginning to loll, his pint of applejack evidently making its mark.
“Think I’ll have a sandwich with mine. What do you think? Cheese and pickle or ham and mustard?”
“A shandwich? I’ll go to my housh.” He got up and leaned on the doorpost, then lurched across the path to where his bicycle was leaned against the fence, trampling my lupins along the way. The last I saw of him that afternoon, he was doing his best to pull his bike out of the hedge.
I poured most of my applejack back into the bottle and have tasted it since. It is good, even very good. It is, I judge, a success.
And as for our traditional means of grading home-made booze? I’ll leave that one to James, who appeared the following day with his hands clapped to his head, with an A1 hangover.
Applejack. I know what I’m doing this summer.