Since the 1950s, Dolly Parton has been writing and singing songs about country life. And part of country life is country liquor.
In Dolly's song, "Applejack" is a banjo player named Jackson Taylor who lives by an apple orchard. But he's not just named after the orchard, but about what he does with the fruit:
Now I'd go down to Applejack's
Almost every day.
We'd sit and we'd drink applejack
That old Applejack had made.
Then he'd take his banjo down,
Then he'd ask me if I'd sing.
And he would play his banjo,
And I'd play my tambourine.
Applejack is an American version of a drink that's been around probably as long as there have been apple orchards. Apple cider, called "hard cider" in the United States, is a low-alcohol beverage made by fermenting apple juice with yeast; it was long a common drink in England and France, with an alcohol level about the same as beer--strong enough to make it safe in an era of contaminated water, but not too strong to sit over for an evening in the pub.
In France, some brandy makers took cider and distilled it in pot stills to make an apple brandy, which was aged in oak barrels to mature the flavor and give it a distinctive wood character. This is Calvados, a fine liqueur used to clean the palate between courses of formal French dinners.
In colonial America, apples were plentiful, brought from England and France, but brandy distilleries were harder to come by. Cider was easy, but to make anything stronger, the colonists used a simpler technique. Today, it's called "freeze distillation," but the colonists called it "jacking."
The familiar form of distillation used for Calvados takes advantage of the fact that alcohol has a lower boiling point than water. A mildly alcoholic liquid like cider is heated, and the vapor is collected. If it's done right, the alcohol and many of the volatile flavor compounds come out at the other end of the still, and the water is left in the kettle.
Freeze distillation uses the same principle in reverse. Since water freezes before alcohol, cider or beer is chilled enough that the water starts to form ice, while the alcohol stays as a liquid. In colonial America, where ice was scarce, this often meant simply leaving the barrel outside during the winter. Once the ice was scooped out, the remaining liquid would be stronger, just as if it had been distilled.
In Dolly's song, she visits with Jack and his banjo when she's "just a kid." But if she's sharing Applejack's applejack, hopefully it was in small glasses; the final product can be as strong as 60 proof.
Today, commercial applejack is mostly made by traditional still distillation. But since stills are illegal in most of the United States, the traditional "jacking" process has been taken up by homebrewers all over the United States, who are making this traditional American drink again.