Alric escorts Heppa through the streets of South Tower in the general direction of the river. “Now are you going to tell me where we’re going?” she asks, unable to contain her curiosity.
“To the distillers’ quarter. Since you have such a keen interest in all these human beverages, I thought you might be interested in seeing how some of them are made.”
She is already quite happy just to be spending the afternoon with him, but that makes her perk up even more. “Oh, yes!” Already questions start coming to mind of what she can ask the craftspeople there.
Over the course of the afternoon, they visit three of the providers who make some of the alcohols and liqueurs with which Alric stocks his bar. The first place he takes her has a wooden sign out front decorated with an apple encased in ice. The people behind the counter offer Alric a friendly greeting, and Heppa notices that on the wall behind them there are two little plaques, each with an official-looking seal and a small red triangle of ribbon attached. There is also a bit of writing on them, which is pretty unusual in the human town.
“We need to restock our applejack supply,” Alric tells the proprietors, Terfyl and Deryn, “but Heppa here has never had any before. I’m relying on her opinion of which of your current batches is the most appealing.” Terfyl sets out glasses and opens up several different bottles for Heppa and Alric to sample, and Alric prompts him to talk about how they make their beverage. Terfyl explains that they start with apple cider that has fermented and then separate out the water through a freezing process. He provides them each a small splash of hard cider first, then pours applejack from a few different bottles. Terfyl gives them time to consider the taste of each drink, not hurrying them in any way.
The openness of the staff here encourages Heppa, and she leans across the counter, trying to make out the small amount of writing on the plaques. Each just says, approved: one vat. “How big is a vat?” Heppa asks, seemingly out of nowhere to her companions.
“Can you show us?” Alric tacks onto her question. Deryn stays at the counter to deal with any other business, while Terfyl takes Heppa and Alric down into the cellar.
“Right now, it being spring, we’re not producing anything new,” Terfyl says, as he shows off two enormous barrels. “In the winter, though, we get ice from the river when it’s available, and we make salt slurries to drop the temperature even lower than that. The alcohol doesn’t freeze as easily as the water does. Any ice that forms in the hard cider is therefore water, and we skim it out. The drink that is left behind is much stronger than the cider was, as I’m sure you could tell upstairs.”
This is all fascinating to Heppa and quite different from what she observed at Connie and Marvin’s still in the Estmark Hills. There they boiled their brew, leaving the water behind and condensing the alcohol in a separate container. “So, evaporation is not your preferred separation technique?” she asks Terfyl.
“Oh no. No no no no. That’s no way to produce applejack!” he replies. Heppa asks further questions to learn the benefits that one process has over the other. Various issues are how much water remains, what other impurities are present, the possible risks of heat-damage to other compounds involved, and so forth. Once Terfyl has provided the answers from his perspective, they all head back upstairs.
Alric places an order for delivery to the Parting Glass and then ushers Heppa back out onto the street. He assures her that she will have an opportunity to hear the other side soon enough, since one of their destinations is the distillers who make mountain tea. But first, there is a different shop he wants to show her. “Since you liked the blaand so much, I thought I’d introduce you to another drink that involves dairy. This next place makes milk punch,” Alric tells Heppa.
The sign outside the establishment is a cow in a field of lavender drinking from a bucket marked with Xs. The shop makes infusions, such as the bitters that Alric adds to certain drinks, but also uses them to make their special punch. It is run by Beti, an herbalist, and Gwayne, who handles the punch side. Beti’s skill lies in selecting the right botanicals and pairing them with liquids that can absorb their flavors and oils, as well as determining the appropriate length of time for steeping. She happily tells Heppa about the botanicals and the liquid bases involved, generally alcohols and vinegars. Alric contributes a fair amount to this discussion as well, and it is clear to Heppa that he has some experience making tinctures himself. It occurs to her that all these shop owners might not be so free with the secrets of their craft if she were not here with him to make the introductions.
When they are done talking with Beti, Gwayne walks them through some of his cocktail blends. Most are citrusy mixes that also feature some of Beti’s tinctures. The additives are put into the alcohol base, creating a murky solution that is then poured into hot milk. The milk curdles, which traps a lot of the impurities. When the curds are strained out, the resulting beverage is far clearer. Gwayne demonstrates all this using a red wine and black tea base that ultimately produces a light pink blush, which of course Alric and Heppa get to sample. One of the advantages of this preparation is the shelflife the drink has. Gwayne can prepare these elaborate blends that are good for months, which enables individual bartenders to provide a wide variety of flavors without having to stock all the components or spend the time mixing them themselves. This is something Alric appreciates, and he puts in an order before they leave the shop.
Finally, Hepalonia and Alric go to the mountain tea distillery. She notices beribboned plaques for vats here, as well. “Does that have to do with the taxes?” she asks Alric, pointing out the wall hanging. She knows Connie and Marvin also make this drink, and they were definitely worried about taxes.
“Yes, each of these places pays the excise tax based on the volume of alcohol they can produce. It’s less work than tracking every individual sale.”
“Hunh,” she says. It is another one of those human things that is so different from how life is in the forest. She is enjoying learning about it all. “This is fun!” she tells Alric.
Cecil, the shopkeeper here, describes the general process: boil the brew, condense the beverage. To listen to him talk, one would think this is the only place that makes mountain tea, but Heppa knows that is not true. She realizes, then, what the scam is that Connie and Marvin are working. They run a hidden, unlicensed vat. Any of their bottles that get sold here are pure profit, with none of the income going to Gweddry. And who knows how many other Connies and Marvins could be out there. With a large enough network of small, secret stills, this place could be selling twice as much volume as what they are taxed on.
Marvin showed Heppa how his still worked, so she is interested in seeing if the larger apparatus is similar. She is also a little curious whether Cecil truly knows the process or if he is just a mouthpiece and all the work is done in the wild. She asks to see his setup, and Cecil says he is happy to provide a tour to a friend of Alric. He takes them into the back room, where there are enormous sealed metal pots with little chimneys that wind in corkscrews across the room to collection containers. As Cecil describes each step in more detail, Heppa realizes the principles are the same as what she saw in the Estmark Hills, although the production is more robust and the equipment better maintained.
Cecil provides samples from a few bottles. The taste is familiar, but there is definitely a difference in quality. After a few sips, she can tell she is growing tipsy. Her cheeks and ears feel hot, and as fun as this all is, she is laughing just a little too much at the thought of all these human tax shenanigans. She tries to center herself for a moment and use fae energy to purge the toxins from her system like she did for Tric Manu down in Untdunben. But perhaps it is a little too late for that here, or she is just too distracted by who is next to her chatting with the proprietor. She cannot keep a proper handle on the energies. As they scour their way through her, out of control, she manages to partially redirect the power to soothe some of her bruises and soreness from last night’s fall.
Each place they have gone, they have sampled some of the wares. When they step out of Cecil’s distillery, Alric takes note of just how giggly Heppa has become and asks if she would like to get something to eat.
“Oh, yes!” Heppa says, taking his arm. “That would be lovely.”