March 24, 2010

Traditional applejack is like making brandy, but instead of heating up to remove the alcohol from the water, applejack is frozen to remove the water from the alcohol. This technique is sometimes referred to as “cold distilling.”

Making applejack was once popular in the New England area of the United States. It was made by putting a bucket of apple cider outside in the winter where temperatures drop below 0⁰ F and the water in the cider would freeze, which was then scooped off, leaving behind the alcohol. This process is repeated several times to remove most of the water and concentrate the alcohol.

The colder the temperatures are, the higher the applejack proof can become. In Wines & Beers of Old New England, Sanborn C. Brown estimates that 0⁰ F can yield a 28 proof or 14 percent alcohol by volume applejack. If the temperatures were around -30⁰F, the applejack could reach 65 proof. Therefore, it can be as weak as wine or as strong as brandy depending on where it was made and how cold it got.

Annie  Proulx and Lew Nichols in Cider: Making, Using & Enjoying Sweet & Hard Cider do mention that “Applejack makers are concerned with getting the most alcohol out of the weather and the cider for their efforts, so” they will add extra sugar and use wine yeasts that can make a higher alcohol apple wine. This process is done during the fall so that the freezing process can begin in January. However, a high alcohol apple wine does not increase the applejack proof, but the temperature does, as previously described. They describe applejack “very flavorsome, but dry, and many prefer to sweeten it to taste before bottling” (page 167).

The real problem with cold distilling is that the finished product has an increased level of toxins. Fermentation creates a few toxins, such as esters and aldehydes, but they are at low dosages that really do not harm the body. With regular heat distilling, these toxins are the first to boil off at the low temperatures in what is called the “head”, and they are set aside for industrial uses such as making lacquer, nail enamel, and cleaning solvents. It smells very much like finger nail paint remover. The second part of heat distilling is the “heart”, which is the consumable ethyl alcohol. The last part, the “tails”, is more toxins such as fusel oils and amyl and propyl alcohols, which are harmful if swallowed at these higher concentrates. These three sections are common to every heat distillation, and can be separated by smell and timing in the distillation process. However, with cold distilling, these toxins are not removed, and the constant removal of water in cold distilling further concentrates them. As a result of the toxins in applejack, it is well known for having a “kick” and then leaving the drinker with a horrible hangover the next day, despite being possibly a lower alcohol content than other higher proof heat distilled spirits.

To read more on the process, check out Annie  Proulx and Lew Nichols’ Cider: Making, Using & Enjoying Sweet & Hard Cider and Ben Watson’s Cider: Hard & Sweet. Remember, even though applejack is not distilled with heat, the process of cold distillation is still considered illegal in the United States without a proper permit.


5 Responses to “Applejack”

  1. […] I had two older women who were the wives of winemakers start talking to me about applejack. I think in both cases, the women were stuck thinking cider is unfiltered apple juice, and they […]

  2. applejacker Says:

    A note concerning toxins:

    The Methanol wikipedia page shows a potential lethal dose at 30ml. The density of methanol is 0.7918 g/ml, making the listed potential lethal dose at 23.754g.

    Separations were carried out using a 3 m × 2 mm internal diameter glass column packed with 30% Carbowax 20 M at 150°C. A more satisfactory separation of methanol from the other congeners was achieved using a 180-cm Porapak P column. Methanol was found at levels of 6-27 mg/litre beer; 96-321 mg/litre in wines and 10-220 mg/litre in distilled spirits.

    Accordingly, if a high-methanol apple wine (say 321mg as in the study) was freeze concentrated to say a 3-1 ratio , you would end up with approx 1g of methanol per liter of concentrated spirits. You’d still have to drink 20 liters of the stuff (approx 5 gallons) to start reaching the listed lethal doses of methanol. This 1g/liter is further mitigated by the high ethanol concentration in my example (approx 36-45% ethanol for a 3-1 freeze concentrated wine), which is one of the two primary antidotes to methanol poisoning.

    As far as I know, every case of methanol poisoning during the prohibition era was due to unscrupulous bootleggers adding toxic chemicals in order to bulk up their product.

  3. applejacker Says:

    Also, freeze distillation does not appear to be illegal in the US, as per this video by the Basic Brewing podcast folks:

  4. I have a 10inch two foot cylinder pottery jar from a relatives farm. It has two faucets in the base. She use to make 160proof applejack in New England. I think this was the jar she used. Simply filling with hard cider and freezing and pouring off from the bottom the unfrozen mix. I believe She did this a few times and used it in the 1940’s.

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