Family legend on my mother’s side holds that my great-great-grandfather, “Applejack” Simpson, bought each of his 11 children a house and a farm and marked each deed with an X because he never learned to sign his name.
He couldn’t read or write, but he made what must have been a gracious living by selling applejack brandy, made in a pot still in the woods behind his barn in Surry County.
It was the turn of the 20th century, and liquor taxes were steep, so I always assumed that grandpa must’ve been hoodwinking the revenuers, even though that wasn’t explicit in the family lore.
The only other thing I know about my great-great-grandpa is that his son, my grandfather’s father, was a teetotaler. My grandfather told the story this way: When his father was a young man, he snuck off into the woods to partake of the family recipe. After more than his share, he became so inebriated that he flew into a furious rage that fueled a fight with his father during which he threatened to kill him. Once sober, the shameful memory of his drunken tempest turned him against booze forever. He never touched another drop, but he did live the rest of his years in the house that Applejack bought.
Hearing those stories growing up, I was struck by the power that this magical liquid must hold – to build fortunes, to change lives for good or ill. The taste of it must be wondrous. My grandfather never had any himself, of course, and hadn’t tasted it for decades. No one knew where to find any. From time to time when I was a young adult, I would encounter a Mason jar of moonshine at a house party, but it was always corn liquor, which tasted like a bolt of bitter lightning, and I knew in my heart that this was not the applejack of family legend.
My grandfather’s remembrances loom large in my mind this time of year as I think of family food traditions and Thanksgiving, when the feast is everything. Beneath so much of our menu planning and elaborate culinary preparations, we are chasing not the creation of the perfect turkey dinner, but a memory, or rather something even more elusive – the illusion of a memory we wish we had had. My mother is an excellent cook, and her recipes will likely outlive us all, but none are family heirlooms. My grandma worshipped at the altar of Stove Top Stuffing. I can’t recall a single dish I ate at her Thanksgiving table. The taste I always longed for when I thought of Mom’s side of the family is one I never had.
The recent re-emergence of hard apple cider in the American mainstream beverage market gave me hope that I might get a sip of real applejack. But not even the small-batch ciders brewed in the mountain wineries hit the spot. Applejack is brandy distilled from apple mash, not simply hard cider. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I found what I can only imagine is the closest, commercial reincarnation of my great-great-grandfather’s liquor – Carriage House Apple Brandy. It comes from a Lenoir company that reinvigorated an old family recipe in the wake of North Carolina’s recently updated liquor laws.
Light amber in color, it’s a sturdy 80-proof liquor that smells like an apple cellar and finishes with the smooth, sweet taste of fruit that has almost gone soft.
I’ll never know for sure if this is what my family’s history tastes like, but it’s close enough to what I’ve imagined to do for now.
Amber Nimocks is a former News & Observer food editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One hundred years ago, America was awash in applejack. It was among the most widely available spirits around. Author and mixologist David Wondrich includes two applejack recipes in his book “Imbibe!” This one, the Jack Rose, is named for a New Jersey bartender: Combine 2 ounces of applejack, the juice of half a lime, and 1/2 ounce of grenadine in a shaker and shake well.