Sometimes you just don't have the right resources to make a decent drink. But if you get enough sober, thirsty minds focused on the problem, humans can find some pretty creative ways to come up with alcohol.
Did you really think something like a lack of grapes or a shortage of barley could keep mankind from getting its swerve on? No way. We're way too clever for that. Here's the proof.
You wouldn't think that this particular vegetable would be good for making booze, but carrots are at least a little bit sweet. Sweetness = sugar, and sugar is what yeast can devour to make into alcohol. According to this recipe, carrots are peeled, chopped, and then boiled until they're mush. Sugar is added (which is almost cheating), as is yeast. The result: Carrot wine. It's less alcoholic than grape wine, but it still comes in sweet or dry varieties. Thirsty, wabbit?
The same tree goo that makes syrup can make spirits. First, tap some holes into the right maple tree at the right time in spring. As the temperatures fluctuate between night and day, a sugary sap oozes out from the trees. Where there's sugar, there's some human trying to make booze out of it. The Vermont Spirits distillery's Vermont Gold Vodka is a fine example. It's made from 100 percent maple sap, which is then fermented and triple-distilled. The result was lightly sweet, quite smooth, and made me think of pancakes. I could have polished off a case of it.
If you read Michael Pollan's book, The Botany of Desire, then this one will be familiar to you. All our illusions of Johnny Appleseed planting sweet, delicious apples are lies. Lies, I tell you! Most of the apples Johnny planted were sour enough to pucker your kisser, but they had one very appealing attribute: They made excellent booze. The apples' juice fermented into a tasty cider, and industrious frontiersmen distilled it down into a spirit known as applejack. A few companies still make it. I'm personally partial to Cornelius Applejack—each bottle is made from over 60 pounds of Hudson Valley apples, then aged in bourbon barrels at Harvest Spirits' New York distillery.
Mouldy Fruit & Ketchup
Get ready to supress your gag reflex. As we learned in our visit to San Quentin, prisoners just have to work with what's available. Inmates stash the fruit they get at meals and toss it into a plastic garbage bag. By some accounts, they let it start to rot. Then they sweeten it with whatever they can get their hands on—sugar, drink mixes, even ketchup. Yeah, ketchup. Because the prisoners have no direct access to yeast, they just toss in a few slices of bread and hope for the best. After many days of fermenting, you end up with pruno, a.k.a. prison wine. Some guys take the pruno and distil it into lightning, which can be as high as 160-proof. Both beverages are extremely dangerous.
Hey, milk's kinda sweet, right? Sure! Once again, where there's sweet, there's sugar—and the potential to make alcohol. Another product from Vermont Spirits distillery is the very delicious Vermont White. Milk sugar is extracted from milk and then used to make a sweet, fermented liquid. It's then triple-distilled and filtered through charcoal. The result was remarkably smooth and had just a hint of sweetness. Highly recommended.
How do you wet your whistle when you live in a dry ass desert? Make booze from cactus, of course. The maguey cactus, which grows even in very arid parts of Mexico, has a sweet heart. The juice inside was first fermented to make a milky drink called pulque. Craving a higher octane experience, folks began roasting and then grinding these hearts to make a mash which could then be fermented and distilled. The result? That smokey spirit known as mezcal. The maguey's cousin, the blue agave cactus, has an even sweeter heart, and it can be used to distil most tequilas worth drinking.
Potatoes!? They aren't even sweet! As the Russians can tell you, it doesn't matter—they're chock full of starch. There is an enzymatic conversion of starches to sugars during the mashing process, which provides plenty of food for the yeasties. It's then fermented and distilled. Most vodkas you find are grain, but a good potato vodka called Chopin, from Poland, is extremely smooth. It's quite nice, if you go for vodkas.
Y'know what Asia has a lot of? Rice. So, naturally, people there have found all sorts of ways to ferment and distill it. The most popular way to sip it in the West is in the form of sake, a rice wine that can be very sweet or very dry. In Indonesia they have brem, a Balinese rice wine that looks, tastes, and smells like alcoholic soy sauce. It is disgusting. Once the rice becomes wine, it can be distilled into many different forms. When I visited Indonesia, some locals got me to try arak, a Balinese rot-gut moonshine that was literally poured from a gas can. There is very little that I remember from that night.
As long as we're digging things out of the ground and getting drunk off of them, let's try some beets. These root veggies are very high in sugar and there are recipes all over the internet for beet wine. Now, to be fair, every recipe I've seen calls for a lot of added sugar which probably is mostly responsible for the fermentation. But the beets add a nice, earthy flavor, not to mention that distinctive tongue-staining color. Dwight Schrute approves.
This is a golden oldie. As our opportunistic ancient ancestors learned, some bees can make a hive out of a hole in a tree. Rainwater could then flood the bees' hives, making a sweet soup. If enough wild yeast could blow in there, it would start the fermentation process. Say a few thirsty humans stumbled upon these vacated nests and drank some of the sweet fluid inside. Then, presto! Suddenly your 19th great grandfather started to look a little more attractive to a local lady. One thing led to another, and eventually, that's how you got here. Today, mead (a.k.a. honey wine) can be produced in a controlled environment, like my closet—here's how to make it.
Carrot Image credit: Shutterstock/vlahuta
Maple Sap Image credit: Shutterstock/Rick Parsons
Apple Image credit: Shutterstock/goran cakmazovic
Moldy Fruit Image credit: Shutterstock/CCat82
Milk Image credit: Shutterstock/Alexander Chaikin
Cactus Image credit: Shutterstock/a9photo
Potatoes Image credit: Shutterstock/Wiktory
Rice Image credit: Shutterstock/Elena Elisseeva
Beets Image credit: Shutterstock/vesna cvorovic
Honey Image credit: Shutterstock/StudioSmart