When we think of distilled spirits in the USA we typically draw our 1st glance to the blue grasses of Kentucky. Images of pot bellied men with long, straggly beards and tightly rolled cigars running a make-shift still in the backwaters pop into my mind at least. We seldom think of California where in 1982 the craft distillers movement started, or Ohio where the local water has almost as much viscosity as in Kentucky. Even though I have had the pleasure and good fortune to have a myriad of distilleries to catalog through I am still shocked when I find something right out my own backdoor. New England has a tradition of great beers and beer is the reason the Pilgrims chose Plymouth rock. The long voyage left them with short supply and drinking water was really nowhere to be found so Miles Standish and his posse weighed anchor at the very unimpressive rock and started brewing. Beer is in our collective blood so to speak. Boston and the surrounding towns and cities play host to countless beer bars like Foundry on Elm, Bukowski’s, The Public House and the like, it is our gastronomic narrative. It is also the base of the embryonic collection of cells that will transform when heated and mature into whiskey. Distillation has had a long legacy in the north east. From Apple brandy to Medford Rum, if we could ferment it; we’d distill it.
Apples to Apples
In 1774 in the Central Massachusetts town of Leominster, Johnny Chapman was born. He grew up with a fondness of apples. In fact I grew up hearing about his love for them as a child in California but I knew him as Johnny Appleseed. Yes, he was real. He spent his life traveling from state to state planting apples.
At the time drinking water was in short supply and most apples were not very palatable. The ingenuity of gene splicing has given us the Red Delicious, Honey Crisp and Granny Smith but unfortunately if you take a Honey Crisp apple and plant its seed you get a tart, tannic and hard crab apple. When life gives you crab apples you make cider. From here it easily ferments with a little bit of time and yeast. Making a distilled spirit out of cider is naturally the next incarnation of inebriated delight. Apple Jack, the American apple brandy was not made however through traditional distillation. It was made through a process called Freeze Distillation. The freezing point of alcohol is -173.2 degrees Fahrenheit so during the fall months when apples were harvested and hard cider was made, vats of cider were often left out in the frigged cold. Keeping in mind that cider are about 7% alcohol and the rest of the liquid is water, once the winter came the water in the vats would freeze. That frozen water was removed and over the winter the liquid you had left had grown significantly in alcohol. Now that 7% cider is roughly a 35% liquor. This became known as Apple Jack because “jacking” was the term used for this type of distillation.
This was much easier than distilling trough evaporation. As a farmer you could just let your vats sit out all winter and when you had a free moment just remove the frozen water. By spring your brandy was ready to be enjoyed. This was something you could not do in Kentucky. For the purest, yes I am drawing a wide comparison as Apple Jack was most likely 1st made in New Jersey from a Scotsman by the name of Laird but ciders were very common in New England and the process of freeze distillation easy to recreate. In Old Sturbridge Village there are references to this type of distillation dating back to the early 1800’s. Plus any chance I get to reference Johnny Appleseed I take
Over the River and Through the Woods
Around 1715 a gentleman named John Hall built a small distillery with some friends on Riverside Ave, in Medford Massachusetts.
At the time a sugar byproduct called molasses arrived on boats from the Caribbean. Because Molasses is incredibly sweet, fermentation was quick and easy. Once run through a still the concentrated concoction would be known as rum. Medford rum was traditionally made with the last run of sugar processing known as “blackstrap,” this was rich, viscous and rough. It was intense to say the least and it was also very cheap. Today it is used for cattle feed as it is high in vitamins and is nutrient rich but also make a round and robust spirit.
By the turn of the 19th century there were a handful of distillers in Medford but by 1830 there was only one rum distiller left: Daniel Lawrence and sons. Daniel Lawrence moved to Medford in 1823 and began working at the Hall distillery. By 1830 he purchased and renamed the distillery and held the market for rum in the north east.
Because of his high standards and high quality blackstrap, his rum became world famous. This was not a light, thin rum that needed mint and limes to be consumed. It was a rum for a whiskey drinker. In 1905 the doors sadly closed due to pressures of the local temperance movement and we would have to wait 107 years to until someone finally decided to reintroduce us to our history.
Going Against the Grain
In 1777 Rhode Island passed a law banning the distillation of grain based alcohol. Fortunately this did not last too long and by the mid 19th century whiskey production became a staple of harbor towns through out the state. By 1814 spirits distilled with oats, Indian corn, molasses, apples, potatoes, rye and peaches were common place throughout New England. In 1810 it is estimated that 1.4 million gallons of alcohol had been distilled in Connecticut alone, about 3/4 was apple brandy. By the end of the 18th century molasses and sugar were harder to come by so fruits and grains began to take center stage in producing hard liquor. Because whiskey took time to rest in oak and come of age (although not as long as today) and gin was grain based the common country gin became a prominent distillate and soon 3 million gallons were being produced by small local distilleries. This “country gin” was juniper rich and had more of a genever quality than the London dry style we are familiar with today
but for roughly $500 ($10,000 in today’s market) one could set up a crude distillery. This was just efficient enough to make a pretty hardy if not rough around the edges spirit but it was at least a stepping stone. Larger commercial farms built proper still houses and were making refined spirits from New England’s finest produce.
Each state had developed their own specialty and fame in distillation. Maine and Massachusetts as we have read were known for great rums. Vermont and Rhode Island became known for gins, New Hampshire for potatoes based spirits. Connecticut had the largest amount of distilleries with 560 registered in 1810. They were pretty diverse and made well known and respected apple brandies, whiskies, rums and gins.
In trying to create a cocktail that to me exemplifies New England I wanted to be a little “tongue and check” so I opted for a twist on the classic Long Island Iced Tea but like Boston to NY wayyy bettah kid. the Nor’easter (It sneaks up on ya) takes several of New England’s alcoholic delights and blends them into one tasty and potent concoction.
Nor’easter (It sneaks up on ya!)
3/4 oz each of New England Distillery “Gunpowder” Rye, GTD “Medford” rum, GTD Cranberry Liqueur, Berkshire Distillers “Ethereal” gin, Downeast cider, cranberry shrub, maple syrup, lemon
These are shaken in a tin and poured into a double rock glass. It is garnished with a lemon peel and star anise.
Looking back at our history and the omnipresent story of alcohol and distillation I have found that great new distillers like Bully Boy, GTD, Berkshire, New England Distilling or Sons of Liberty and Damnation Ally (about 5 blocks from my home) are not just novelties in an ever growing industry. They are as much a part of our regional narrative as John Hall, Daniel Lawrence and all of those who came before. These are the people who paved the path and helped us harvest our nations artisinal freedom all inside simple bottles of inebriated joy.