Memories of Making Cranberry Hooch

Bog Cranberries (High Bush Variety) Turn Bright Red in Autumn.  (National Archives, 1973.)
Bog Cranberries (High Bush Variety) Turn Bright Red in Autumn. (National Archives, 1973.)

The smell of bacon and freshly brewed coffee was heavy in the air as Dick, my handsome, blond, newbie husband and I made our way into the living room with our second cup of coffee. We had just finished our new tradition of having sourdough pancakes and bacon on Sunday mornings. Dick’s mother had given us a sourdough starter made from the one she received from her neighbor. The origins of this old starter dated back to the gold rush days.

We settled in on our new brown hide-a-bed couch to read the Sunday edition of the Anchorage Daily News. It was a pre-children treat for us in 1968 to be able to party with friends on Saturday night, sleep in until noon, have a leisurely breakfast, and then read the entire newspaper cover to cover. Savoring this time spent in togetherness as a newly married couple was pure bliss.

Connie and Dick, 1968.
Connie and Dick, 1968.

“Hey Sweetheart,” Dick said, holding up a section of the paper. “Here’s an article that tells you how to make different things out of high bush cranberries. It has recipes for jelly, juice, ketchup, and hooch.” It explained that hooch is a slang term used for a liqueur made surreptitiously. It went on to say the word hooch came from the Hoochinoo Indians, a tribe of the Tlingit peoples of Alaska, who made distilled liqueur from native berries.

“Isn’t that interesting? I’d like to try making some of this cranberry hooch stuff,” Dick continued enthusiastically. “What do you think, Sweetheart?”

“Honey, I think that’s a great idea. We could make a big batch and give it away for Christmas presents. And, of course, keep some for ourselves,” I answered.

Dick and I had just settled into our first apartment, located off Jewel Lake road a little way outside of Anchorage, where Dick was working as a Customer Engineer for I.B.M.

On Monday, Dick brought home a gallon of Everclear, a brand of 180 proof alcohol, and some other items he’d picked up on his lunch hour. He was eager to get started on making a batch of that elegant cranberry liqueur known as Hooch.

The area across the street from our apartment complex was wooded, and since Dick was eager to get started on his hooch-making project, we put our coats on, grabbed my mop bucket and headed across the street to gather highbush cranberries. The berry bushes were easy to spot, as their bright red autumn leaves stood out against the green of the other woodland plants, and the bushes were load with clusters of bright clear-red berries. They resembled currants.

By the time we returned from our berry picking it was nearly dark as the late August days were growing shorter. We were weary after trekking around in the woods for hours, so it was off to bed after storing the berries in the refrigerator for the night.

Immediately after dinner the next evening we went to work on our hooch-making project. I filled the sink with water, then poured the bucket of berries in and swished them around, laboriously removing the twigs and leaves until all that was left were the bright clear-red berries. I scooped them out of the water and placed them on a towel to dry.

While I had been slaving away with twig and leaf removal, Dick had been measuring out the 24 cups of sugar and the 12 cups of water into my turkey roaster, which was the largest pot we owned. According to the recipe this would be added to the crushed cranberries and then the mixture would be simmered until the berries popped open and let out their juice. We had decided to make a quadruple batch in order to have plenty to give away as Christmas gifts.

Connie in the kitchen, early 1970's.
Connie in the kitchen, early 1970’s.

Finally everything was measured and we were ready for the next step: crushing the berries. But how were we going to do this? We didn’t have any kind of juice making equipment. A rapid search of all two of the drawers in the kitchen ended with Dick grabbing the potato masher.

This proved to be a rather hilarious answer to crushing berries, because the little berries would just go right through the slots of the potato masher. I had a good laugh as Dick tried and tried to get the masher to crush those berries. He finally flung the offensive masher into the sink with a cuss word originating from his time spent in the Navy.

Grabbing one of the nice tea towels that my grandmother had so lovingly embroidered for me, Dick said he was going to put the berries in the middle and squeeze the juice out. I, of course, had a few choice words of my own to voice over this idea. Weren’t the berries supposed to be crushed, not juiced? After a few moments of heated discussion, we decided that the hot pink, striped dishtowels could be used because the berry stains would be less noticeable than on my white embroidered tea towels.

Placing several cups of the berries into a striped dishtowel, Dick used the small ball-peen hammer from his I.B.M. tool kit to crush the berries. They were so juicy that we had quite a sticky mess all over the counter, and we decided that perhaps it wasn’t necessary to crush high bush cranberries. After all didn’t the recipe say the berries were supposed to pop open while cooking and release their juice? Perhaps there was an error in the recipe about needing to crush the berries, I thought.

Dick threw the used towel in the sink, picked up the bucket with the rest of the berries and dumped them into the turkey roaster containing the water and sugar mixture. Then he sweated over the hot stove as I ladled off the foam into a small bowl. The aroma from the bubbling pot was reminiscent of jelly making. After awhile the cranberries had cooked down a little into a thin syrup. It was time to add the gallon Everclear, however we realized there wasn’t going to be enough room in the turkey roaster. What could we use? Certainly not the sink!

“How about the mop bucket?” I asked.

“Well, if you wash it and sterilize it with some boiled water that should work. But we’ll have to wait until this syrup cools, and then make it in two or three batches,” Dick replied.

When the syrup had cooled, Dick measured out a third of the Everclear and put it in the now clean and sterile bucket. But when he went to measure out the cranberry syrup he noticed all the seeds. He poured the syrup onto a fresh striped towel, holding it over the bucket as he began wringing out the juice. Soon it was all ready to be bottled.

“Where are the bottles?” he asked.

In our excitement we had overlooked the need to sterilize the empty Vodka bottles our party loving friends Jack and Jeri had given us for this project. I needed the turkey roaster to sterilize the bottles since it was the only thing big enough. So, we now had another dilemma. What could we put the rest of the syrup into so I could use the roaster?

I filled the other two pots we owned, but still had to run over to one of my neighbors and borrow a pot to accommodate all that liquid. After emptying the turkey roaster and giving it a good scrub, I sterilized the bottles. Then, using the new funnel, Dick filled the bottles with the beautiful, bright red, clear liquid and capped them off with a cork. We were so proud of the line of bottles sitting on our kitchen table, we just had to share a congratulatory kiss.

“How about a toast with that little bit of hooch we have left in the bucket,” Dick said, looking at me with a triumphant grin on his face.

“Why not?” I happily replied.

But, oh, that first sip took my breath away, as the ruby-red liquid coursed down my throat. I let out a startled gasp. Dick just laughed contently sipping his glass of Elegant Hooch.

Dick couldn’t wait for Christmas to give our friends Jack and Jeri a bottle of our ruby red liqueur, so the very next Friday night when we went all dressed-up like a gangster and flapper girlfriend to Jack and Jeri’s Roaring Twenties party, we took them a bottle of our homemade hooch.

Two weeks later we found out that you don’t want to put newly made cranberry hooch into the cupboard above your stove because it can explode. Jeri told Dick about hearing a loud explosion from the kitchen and when she investigated, she found sticky red liquid dripping from the cupboard above her stove.

Needless to say, we learned about fermentation the hard way, and the rest of our batch of Elegant Hooch was put into my dad’s cold garage to await December gift giving.

Cranberry Liqueur

3 lbs. cranberries

6 c. sugar

3 c. water

1 Fifth of Everclear, 180 proof

Clean and crush the cranberries. Place sugar and water in a large pot and add crushed cranberries. Simmer until berries pop and release juice and a thin syrup forms. Cool and add Everclear. Bottle in sterilized bottles and cork or use canning jars.

We found that when using highbush cranberries you do not need to crush the berries, but you do need to strain the syrup because of the seeds. Also, do not store in a warm place because bottles may explode. This is very good as an after dinner drink and also as a medicinal for a cough.

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Connie and her husband, Dick Walker, moved to Anchorage in 1966 where two sons, Brian and Michael, were born.  Before they left Alaska in 1982, the family enjoyed camping, fishing and cross-country skiing.

A writing class from ACC inspired Connie to write poetry, short stories and a novel.  She earned a Certificate as an Herbalist from the Dominion Herbal College of B.C., Canada.  In Anchorage, she worked at the Rainbow Health Center and Anna’s Health Foods.

The Walkers operated their own herbal store and school for 25 years in Salem, OR where Connie wrote and taught an herbal course for the National Health Care Institute.

Retirement allows Connie to pursue her passion for writing and storytelling.