TNB Summer Cool Down Special: Homemade Liquor Tips with Scott Meyer, Author of Hooch: Simplified Brewing, Winemaking & Infusing
By TNB Nonfiction
July 30, 2013
Making hard cider couldn’t be easier. You can even start with the unpasteurized, no-alcohol apple cider sold at local orchards in fall. You need not add any sugar to it and it will yield a sweet and tasty, low-alcohol drink in just a few weeks. Once you’ve learned the basic steps, you can improve the end result with blends of apples for better flavor and adding natural carbonation. Ginger beer is another quick and rewarding drink for novices to learn. Like cider, you can start with readily available ingredients and in a short period of time get a simple drink with fresh flavor and low-alcohol content.
List your five favorite hooches.
American Pale Ale: Easier to brew at home than lager, and with just enough hops flavor to get your attention.
Elderberry wine: Sweet and a little syrupy, but not at all soda-pop-like, as the cheap strawberry wine we used to guzzle was.
Sangria: A light and fruity taste of summer that anyone can make quickly. It’s so casual – the liquid equivalent of your most comfortable pair of flip-flops.
Chile-pepper flavored mead: The heat and the sweet combine to give you a warm glow when you drink it.
Perry: The essential bitter-sharp cider pears are not easy to come by, but when blended right the flavors of pear cider are deep and complex.
In the intro you say that the new hooch isn’t just some cheap and easy buzz but rather attention to quality and detail. Let’s say I want the best of both worlds. What should I make?
Apple Jack is a potent and easy-to-make. Start with hard cider that includes crab apples (so it isn’t too sweet). To make apple jack the old-fashioned way, you simply freeze hard cider and as the water in it solidifies (before the alcohol) you scrape it away until you are left with concentrated apple-flavored alcohol. Depending on how low you are able to get the temperature, you can make it up to 27 percent alcohol – enough to give you good buzz.
What’s the highest octane alcohol you can make at home?
Distilling is illegal in the US, but if you have a small still you can make grain liquor that is as potent as any moonshine – that is, nearly pure alcohol. You can legally make wines and brew beer, both of which top out at around 20 percent alcohol.
Do you ever brew at-home booze for dinner parties or to share with friends? If so, what goes over best? Tell me a story of a real homemade hooch home run, the recipe that everyone raved about and begs you to make again.
Sharing homegrown and homemade drinks is as gratifying as sharing homegrown and homemade food. And I’ve enjoyed that feeling. But the greatest hooch home run I’ve experienced is the limoncello that a friend who’s a chef and cookbook author makes. I don’t care much for liqueurs, but this is so light and refreshing, yet discreetly potent. A small group of friends once drank it until we were overcome by hilarity. Now we think of it as essential to any memorable evening. The recipe is in the book.
Have you made the absinthe? Where can I get Wormwood?
I have not made absinthe myself – I tried a batch that one of my sources made. It has a very distinct herbal flavor – kind of musky and floral at the same time. Drinking it is a fun ritual, but I didn’t love the flavor. I do grow wormwood in my garden. You can buy plants at many garden centers and it’s very easy to care for.
Any nightmare hangover stories? Homebrew gone bad? What do I need to be careful about?
Homemade beer, wine, cider, etc, are no more likely to cause a hangover than commercial ones. But before and after I started researching this book, I’ve tasted plenty of funky, off-flavored homemade wine and beer, as has most anyone who has tried to make it. The cause, as every one of my sources told me, is almost always less than rigorous attention to sanitation. When bacteria other than yeast stay alive in the must or wort (the raw material for fermenting alcohol), the result will be a drink that’s more like vinegar than delicious hooch. To prevent this, you need to thoroughly clean and sanitize every surface and tool (including, and maybe most of all, your hands) that come in contact with the ingredients. The other important factor is to use only fresh, clean ingredients – overripe fruit may begin to taste winey, but it will not make for good wine.
Now as long as I don’t sell it… I won’t get arrested, right?
You can brew beer and make wine, cider or mead – that is, fermented drinks – for personal consumption legally throughout the U.S. You can make infusions, too. But distilling liquor, which has the potential to cause a dangerous fire, is not legal for personal consumption or sale. That said, I’ve met a few people who are making their own high quality eau de vie (like brandy) and even bourbon and discreetly sharing it with friends, unafraid that G-men will kick in their doors.
Scott Meyer was on staff at Organic Gardening magazine for more than twenty years, seven of them as editor-in-chief. Meyer is the author of seven books, including The City Homesteader. His writing has appeared in Philadelphia, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Prevention, Organic Style, Mountain Bike, and more. He lives with his wife, two children, and garden beds in suburban Philadelphia.