Bounce into some history

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There are many reasons Conner Prairie loves their corporate sponsors: they’re great people, and we’re happy to know them; their missions – what’s truly important to them – align with ours; their product/service offers something that enriches and involves our shared community.

It was no surprise, then, when we reached out to new partner, West Fork Whiskey, and made a big ask.

Conner Prairie: We need some whiskey…
West Fork: How much whiskey?
Conner Prairie: A LOT of whiskey.

Within 48 hours, not only had West Fork come through with the spirit, but the large oak barrel in which that spirit had been aged. So, what on earth did we have planned for all that liquid gold?

As a part of our annual craft beverage festival, History on Tap, we endeavor to offer Tastes of the Past – samples of food and beverage made from historical recipes. While we’ve created many different 19th-century homestyle brews in years past (persimmon beer, spruce beer, even beer made with peapods!) we decided to try something new for 2024.

On offer this year at the Golden Eagle Inn in Prairietown, guests will have a chance to sample a beverage with deep historical roots – roots that lead back directly to a Founding Father! Through the generosity of West Fork Whiskey, we’ve mixed up a big ol’ batch of Cherry Bounce.

Guided by a find amongst Martha Washington’s recipe collection, we’ve replicated an historical liqueur, Cherry Bounce, a supposed favorite of our nation’s first president, George Washington. So beloved by Washington was this cordial, he reportedly carried a canteen of it, along with Madeira and port, when he crossed the Allegheny Mountains in September of 1784.

The origins of Cherry Bounce can be traced to England, and from there, it traveled to the colonies with settlers. Early recipes call for a base of brandy, a spirit easily produced in colonial America and likely cheaper than imported rum, which was by far the most popular alcohol of the period. The etymology of the cordial’s moniker likely stems from the Middle English definition of bounce, meaning to beat or thump – which could refer to what happens to the cherries, or what happens to the drinker.

Like most things, Cherry Bounce has evolved from its original form. By the late 1700s, colonists had begun to distill whiskey – even Washington, who started producing the spirit around 1797 – and its popularity rose. Cheap, readily available (and probably not very refined), it easily became a starting point for many cordials and liqueurs, which are characterized by a base spirit infused with sweetener, spices, and fruit.

Martha Washington’s original recipe (found in her papers, though not in her handwriting) goes as follows:

Excellent Cherry Bounce
Extract the juice of 20 pounds well ripend Morrella cherrys. Add to this 10 quarts of old french brandy and sweeten it with White sugar to your taste. To 5 gallons of this mixture add one ounce of spice such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmegs of each an Equal quantity slightly bruis’d and a pint and half of cherry kirnels that have been gently broken in a mortar. After the liquor has fermented let it stand close-stoped for a month or six weeks then bottle it, remembering to put a lump of Loaf Sugar into each bottle.

Amos Owens

Modernized recipes have smartly excluded the cracked cherry pits, the centers of which contain prussic acid, also known as cyanide; Morello cherry pits harbor an astonishing 65 mg of cyanide per gram, so I guess we’re lucky George Washington didn’t overindulge! Later 18th and 19th century adaptations also played with the starting spirit, based on availability, the sweetener, and the array of spice. One famous moonshiner, Amos Owens, became known as the “Cherry Bounce King”. His North Carolina bounce legacy, built on a recipe that included whiskey, honey, and cherries from nearby Cherry Mountain, lasted from the late 1800s up to modern times. Forest City, NC, southeast of Ashville, still holds an annual Cherry Bounce Festival.

Our version starts with West Fork whiskey, to which we’ve added tart cherry juice (because none of us wanted to pit/mash/juice 100+ lbs. of cherries), sugar, and an infusion of cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg. We’re putting that donated oak barrel to use, too – our Cherry Bounce is currently maturing inside, tucked away in a secure, cool, and secret location until June.

Join us for History on Tap, June 7, to get your taste of this classic nip – while supplies last! – or try your hand at a homemade batch with the adapted recipe below…you just have to have patience!

From Dining with the Washingtons by Nancy Carter Crump

10 to 11 pounds fresh sour cherries, preferably Morello, or 3 (1-pound, 9-ounce) jars preserved Morello cherries*
4 cups brandy
3 cups sugar, plus more as needed
2 cinnamon sticks, broken into pieces
2 to 3 whole cloves
1 (1/4-inch) piece fresh whole nutmeg

Pit the cherries, cut them in half, and put them in a large bowl. Using a potato masher, carefully mash the fruit to extract as much juice as possible. Strain the juice through a large fine-mesh strainer, pressing the fruit with a sturdy spoon. You should have about 8 cups. Reserve the mashed cherries in the freezer or refrigerator for later use. If using jarred cherries, drain the fruit and set the juice aside before halving and mashing the cherries. Add any pressed juice to the reserved juice.

In a lidded 1-gallon glass jar, combine the juice with the brandy and sugar, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Cover with the lid, and set aside in the refrigerator for 24 hours, occasionally stirring or carefully shaking the jar.

Bring 2 cups of the juice to a simmer over medium heat. Taste the sweetened juice and add more sugar, if desired. Stir in the cinnamon sticks, cloves, and nutmeg, then cover and simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, and set aside to cool at room temperature. Strain and discard the spices.

Stir the spiced juice back into the 1-gallon glass jar with the reserved sweetened juice. Cover loosely with the lid and set aside for at least 2 weeks before serving, occasionally shaking the jar with care.

Serve at room temperature in small cordial or wine glasses. Store the remaining in the refrigerator. Makes about 3 quarts.

*Note from Conner Prairie – substitute 8 cups high-quality tart cherry juice.

About the Author

As a Program Developer at Conner Prairie, Kim McCann creates content and helps to implement special events. She takes great pleasure in connecting the present and the past through historical foodways. She is an award-winning storyteller, hobby mixologist, and has been brewing beer from historical recipes for almost a decade; her favorite to date is a honey beet beer with a perfect pink head.