By Ike Adams
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — I worked one winter in the late ‘60s with an old fellow named John Bowers as part time caretaker of Camp Shawnee on Dewey Lake in Floyd County. John lived in a cabin at the camp through the week, but he went home to Pike County on weekends. I covered for him while he was away. Which meant I mostly sat around and did nothing more strenuous than tend to John’s Granny-fighting cider on Friday and Saturday nights when the weather got real cold this time of year.
He had a cider press and an apple orchard at home. He stored the cider in gallon soda concentrate jugs that he had accumulated from restaurants and drug stores that sold fountain sodas. Somehow he canned it at home so the jugs would seal and the cider wouldn’t spoil before he was ready to use it.
I can’t remember exactly how he did it, just that the process involved putting yeast into the jugs and letting them sit opened in a warm room with a vapor lock plugged into the neck for a few days to ferment and that the cabin smelled like a late fall orchard where the ground was littered with rotten apples. Not terribly unpleasant, but not appetizing either. Anyway, you could smell the cabin for a quarter mile before you got to it.
John would pour the fermented stuff into a half gallon tub, set it outside on cold nights and let it freeze over, break the ice and skim it off the next day, strain the remains through cheese cloth into a milk churn, and what was left was a potent alcoholic beverage he called Granny fighting cider. I’m over-simplifying here because it would take several pages to accurately describe the entire process.
He had a ready market for the stuff because most of eastern Kentucky was “dry” at that time and it was over 60 crooked miles from John’s place to the nearest liquor store. I figure I can get away with telling this because the statutes of limitation have expired and both John and his wife have been dead for over 30 years. I don’t believe they had any children. At least he never spoke of them.
He used to say he couldn’t give a gallon of cider away until he “doctored” it. Then he could sell it for $25 a gallon or $10 a quart.
I used a tin cup and a funnel to dip the doctored cider from the churns back into the gallon jugs and Mason Jars. Then I corked the jugs and lidded the jars and labeled them with a red felt pen “Granny Fighting Cider.” You had to wait until the containers were sealed and dry to label them because if any of the brew got on the label it would melt right off. John said, “Don’t ever spill any on the floor cause it’ll take the varnish off.”
I’d go back to the dorm and sneak into the laundry room and then the shower because, if anybody smelled me or my clothes, they thought I’d been cleaning out hog pens. But when I pulled a quart of John’s Granny Fighting Cider out from under my bunk, and passed it around, the teasing stopped. I’m not sure how strong, proof-wise, the stuff actually was, but it was a lot like the then-popular hair dressing, Bryle Crème. A little dab would do you. Especially if you wanted to remain standing for any length of time.