Apple Jack Success!

Apple jack is traditionally freeze distilled apple wine or hard cider.  I had some home-made apple wine made from concentrated apple juice that wasn’t very good, it was already in a plastic Southern Comfort bottle, and last night it was 10 degrees F outside.  As shown on this website, that means that any liquid at 10 F should be about 25% alcohol.  How cold it is directly impacts (and limits) the percentage of alcohol in the final product.  So, I drank a bit out of the bottle to allow for expansion, and set it outside.  Aging had, if anything, made the apple wine taste worse.  Just horrible.  Before bed, after three hours or so,  I was pretty disappointed as I saw no ice forming; however, looking at this picture more closely I think I do see some very small ice crystals throughout the wine.

Come morning it looked like solid slush in the bottle.  I smashed it up a bit with an iced tea spoon, and poured it onto a fine mesh cloth in a strainer over a bowl.  Then, like Julia Roberts taught me how to squeeze water out of spinach, I squeezed out the liquid.  Since the ice crystals aren’t squishy like spinach pulp, it was a much faster process, which was good because it was still 10 degrees out and cold on my bare hands!

I started with 7 cups of apple wine and wound up with 3 cups of apple jack.  The ice was very light colored after it was squeezed.



Assuming the 3 cups of apple jack is 25% alcohol, then the starting liquid was about 11%; however, my highly calibrated ethanol meter (my tongue) measured 3-4% alcohol in the watery leavings.  The chickens may have gotten some 4th day of Christmas joy out of it!

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t only the alcohol that was concentrated by the freeze distillation, but also every unpleasant flavor in the stuff — and any residual sweetness was destroyed.  I’m fairly grim when it comes to consuming culinary mistakes.  Me and Ben:  waste not want not.  But this may have been over the line.  I added 3 tablespoons of sugar (one for each cup) and threw in a cinnamon stick.  After just a few hours it was much improved because cinnamon tastes good.  I’ll leave that stick in there at least a few days longer then, with Ben nodding approvingly, do what must be done.

12/18/15 Update:  The sugar and cinnamon stick did the trick.  The doctored apple jack is wonderful stuff!



1st Attempt to Make Hard Cider from Apples

I’ve tried to extract apple juice from apples with a blender and some water, but it was watery.  To get quality, raw apple juice from apples requires a fruit press.  I broke down and bought a small one from Amazon last week:  Weston Fruit and Wine Press

dscn0971-2This press holds two five gallon buckets of apples that have been ground up.  To process the apples I put them in the freezer until frozen solid, and then brought them out to thaw in the hopes the freezing action would reduce the apples to mush — the concept being that the expansion of the water as it turned to ice would rupture the apple’s cell walls.  This did work to a certain extent, as shown by the picture to the left where the juice is puddling on top of the frozen and then thawed apple.

20 Gallons of Apples
20 Gallons of Apples

Unfortunately, the disruption caused by freezing was not sufficient:  the apples were still very structurally sound.  As in when I tried to smash them using a canoe paddle mostly the paddle was deflected and the apples remained intact.  Weston also sells a fruit grinder, but since I’m only going to process 20 gallons of fruit, the added expense didn’t seem worth it.  Instead I cut each apple into quarters, and five apples at a time, ran them through the food processor.

Then the apple mash went into the fruit press.  It was easy to figure out how to work it, and the juice pressed out fairly easily.  Several times I rotated the screw until it was hard to push down, and let the juice flow and waited until the pressure was off of the screw — until the last time there was almost no juice produced.  Netting over the whole apparatus between turning-the-screw episodes kept flies and yellow jackets out of the juice.  (That’s the Golden Grimes apple tree in the background.)

dscn0976 dscn0979

I have used Champagne yeast to make mead, melomel, apple wine from store-bought juice, etc. and it is indeed a robust yeast.  But this time I researched on what kind of yeast would be best to make cider and settled on the VR21 strain.  It’s supposed to preserve more of the fruit flavor than Champagne yeast, and is also supposed to be vigorous:  we shall see.  The choice of yeast strain is a science unto itself, and I am new to it, but the Google Machine is a wonderful resource.

Making fermented beverages is very easy.

  1. Put a sugar containing liquid into a carboy.
  2. Add yeast.
  3. Plug with a water-lock.
  4. Wait a few weeks, until the bubbling stops.

All of the needed equipment can be found at Amazon, Midwest Supplies or E. C. Kraus.  I bought the yeast from E. C. Kraus as it cost less than Amazon, including postage.  Yeast will keep for months in the refrigerator, and I held about a quarter of it back in case I need to add some more later.

The process can, of course, be more complex.  It’s a good idea to whisk some air into the mixture when the yeast is first added (the initial yeast growth needs oxygen), but I didn’t bother this time since the carboy, shown below, had a lot of airspace.  Some types of yeast need precise temperatures.  There are some beers that must be fermented at very cool temperatures — well below room temperature — probably because they were first pressed into beer-making service in cool German cellars.    Serious vintners will measure various liquid and gaseous chemicals over time, add ingredients or stir according to precise recipes, etc.

I pretty much used 1., 2. and 3., except that the carboy below shows the results of pressing and fermenting 10 gallons of apples.  Tomorrow I will press the next 10 gallon batch of apples and add to the bubbling brew.  Note that the mixture is cloudy:  that’s mostly from the yeast.  The yeast will die off in one of two ways:  starvation from a lack of sugar, or alcohol poisoning.  Since the VR21 yeast can tolerate up to 15 percent alcohol, and the sugar in apples usually produces hard cider at about six percent alcohol, starvation is what will kill the yeast.  The cider will clear and the dead yeast will fall to the bottom.


The front carboy shows the yeast action after 24 hours.  It’s about 2.5 gallons of juice from 10 gallons of apples, which may not seem like much, but the sack in front is the leftover pulp.  Foreshortening makes the pulp look larger than the juice, but actually it’s smaller.  There’s a lot of air space between the apples in the 10 gallon measurement!

Yeast prefers a low oxygen environment, and this is the purpose of the water-lock:  as long as the pressure is higher inside than outside, no oxygen gets in.  As yeast converts sugar into alcohol, carbon dioxide is given off.  This increases the pressure inside the carboy.  The link below shows the action of the water-lock as it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, while keeping oxygen out.


When the cider clears, open it up and taste it.  If you like it, that’s fine, but it may be very dry with no hint of sweetness.  Once the process gets this far, if I don’t like it, there are two avenues available:

  1. Add sugar, which should lead to vigorous yeast growth, and keep adding sugar until alcohol kills the yeast, then add more sugar to give the fermented product a touch of sweetness.  This is the approach I’ve used in the past, but I want to do this batch only with the apples.
  2. Kill the yeast off with crushed Campden Tablets (potassium metabisulfite), then add a little sugar.  I don’t like using Campden Tables so will probably not do that.

A third alternative would be to add a little honey or sugar to each glass when it is poured.

To get a sparkling cider, add a little sugar to each bottle before corking, but I will definitely not do that as I’m fearful of explosions and cider all over.

What to do with the apple pulp?  At first I was going to freeze it and feed it to the chickens in the winter, but I think it has one more job to do first.  That experiment will be the next post.