Cider season is in full sway, and Washington is surrounded by apple country and cider mills. In fact, you can hardly get there from here without passing a cider mill.
The dominant apple in this area is the Jonathan, a rich, red variety that tends to make a darker and much sweeter cider than the MacIntoshes of northern states. This may be drawback for straight-cider purists, but our cider has a distinct advantage is hardening. The Jonathan's skin is high in yeast to set off fermentation, and the high sugar content provides proportional alcohol.
Obviously, the key is the apple grower and the cider presser. You can't harden cider that has fixatives added to preserve its shelf life. The fixatives are, simply, anti fermentation agents. And you're not going to have much luck if the apples were washed. Most cider in markets, even roadside stands, is a poor bet for hardening.
Go to the mill and ask the man for cider for hardening. He'll know, and if you're really serious about this he'll give you some pulp. With pulp you can't miss. You simply fill a clean plastic garbage can about two-thirds full with fresh cider and add two or three gallons of pulp. You should have it in a cool place, like a cellar, but the exact temperatiure is less important than a fairly constant one. Put a lid on the garbage can, but don't let it be airtight. And wait, three days to a week. If you can't resist an inspection, it won't hurt - but be careful: Don't lift the lid and immediately stick your face over the can, the gas could knock you over.If you've used lots of pulp, a little stirring to break up the pulp at the top is in order, but don't use anything metal. A clean baseball bat does fine. When the bubbling and gurgling is done you can start sampling.
When you're happy, skim off the pulp and siphon the hard cider into glass or plastic jugs.
But the easiest way is to buy the right kind of cider in gallon jugs and let it harden in that constant-temperature place. Just poke a hole in the cap.
By the letter of the law, hardening cider is illegal, but the revenuers aren't going to come after you unless you go into the business. And you can get a permit, free, from the Treasury just as in home wine-making.
Going the next step - distilling applejack - is even less legal, but a gallon or two for your own consumption won't get you raided and you don't need to build a still. All you need is a freezer or a good-size freezer compartment in your refrigerator. The principle is the same as a still - alcohol has a lower boiling/vaporizing point than water - only reversed: It also has a lower freezing point.
Set a plastic jug two-thirds full of hard cider in the freezer. Check it in about an hour and it should be ice on the immediate inside and slushy in the middle. What you can pour out will be applejack. To increase the proof, repeat the process, bearing in mind that it will take a bit longer.
What you get is going to be pretty tepid, as far as flavor goes. Flavor comes from aging in charred wooden barrels, and cooperage is hard to come by these days and you're not operating in those quantities. But you can experiment with adding flavor and coloring - caramelized sugar, a jot of iodine, concentrated sherry . . .
You can do the same thing with almost any wine.