Eva Zubryk was a tough lady. You could just tell.
My maternal great-grandmother was short but stalwart, holding her ground in sensible shoes. They were black or the colour of caramel, and were tied securely with thin, silky laces passing through eyelets that looked impenetrable, as if they were just for show, having been dabbed on with the tip of a Sharpie. Even her dress shoes were low to the ground and neutrally coloured. Their lack of frivolity made a statement.
Her hands were broad and adorned with thick fingers that went about innumerable tasks in a day: peeling potatoes, punching down bread dough, weeding the garden, scraping clothes against a washboard, polishing furniture. Earlier in her life they had farmed wheat, slopped pigs, scrubbed others’ floors, sewed burlap bags for Ontario onions, and prepared food for workers on their way home from shifts at the local factory. Her hands knew what it was to work.
Grainy and assertive, even her voice pulled no punches. When she laughed the sound hurtled up from a deep, hidden place, pulling her shoulders up and down with it. If something was really funny, she might let one of her powerful hands drop onto the table in front of her in a kind of exclamation point. One of the hallmarks of having lived a hard life is that you don’t hold back when moments of joy offer themselves up.
A hard life she lived, indeed. Arriving in Canada as a toddler, she knew the challenges of trying to assimilate, of creating an existence — one’s shelter, food, and a living — from the land. She knew poverty and heartbreak and hard luck. She also knew how to take chances, to hope, to love despite the odds, and to do whatever was necessary to provide for her family.
It was the necessity to do whatever it took to pay the bills and to put food on the table that made Eva Zubryk a skilled — and crafty — moonshine maker.
My grandmother, Ana, often told stories about how her mother made whiskey secretly on their farm in Saskatchewan. She claimed that Eva’s still was so well hidden underground that you could walk right over it and never suspect what what went on beneath your feet. Her product was good enough that it sold well in town, and Eva used to pack special suitcases with bottles and take them by train to Regina, managing to hawk her wares clandestinely every time, returning home with lighter luggage but a heavier purse. (My grandmother also always delighted to mention that the one time Eva’s then-husband insisted he would take the trip into town, he was arrested for the illegal sale of alcohol within an hour of departing the train.)
Of course, being adept at producing sought-after black-market hooch in those days meant that you received a disproportionate amount of attention from the authorities, and as Ana told it, the family farm was no stranger to visits from the RCMP. On one such surprise call, Eva had started her mash on the stove in the kitchen and sent Ana out to the pig pen with the pot while she escorted the men in uniform through the house and around the grounds. The mounties had left by the time the pigs’ mid-morning snack had a chance to kick in and soused swine passed out in the yard to sleep off their unplanned bender.
The stakes were higher, though, on a morning when Eva was packing her suitcases with freshly decanted bottles, preparing to take the trip into city to make some much-needed supplemental income. Did she hear the thudding at the end of the lane first, or did she feel it, the impact of horses’ hooves as they pounded down on dry summer earth, kicking up a cloud of dust around their red-coated riders. The RCMP were visiting at a most inopportune time. Dumping mash in a hurry is one thing, but to lose an entire finished batch of whiskey is another, and what to do with the bottles, even if they could be emptied in time?
Eva sent her daughter to the front door to greet the unexpected visitors. Ana was polite, and neither hurried nor tarried in her responses to their questions and in acquiescing to their request to enter. They followed Ana into the farmhouse and found Eva seated at the kitchen table near the wall, feeding her son, whom she held in her arms. Indisposed, she asked the officers if they minded if Ana toured them around any of the yard or fields they wished to inspect. Unwilling to disturb a mother feeding her child, they followed my grandmother, barely beyond childhood at the time, outside.
After the RCMP had left, unable, as usual, to find any hard evidence that Eva was moonshining, Ana returned to the kitchen. Eva handed Ana her brother, lifted her strategically draped long skirt, and pulled out the suitcases from beneath the chair where they had been hiding during the visit from the police.
As far as I know, Eva moonshined on that farm in Saskatchewan with her perfect record intact.
I was not unaware of my great-grandmother’s legacy when I decided to make raspberry gin last July. Having been rather enthusiastic while picking raspberries that were pretty close to perfect after a hot and sunny stretch of weather, I found myself with a persisting surfeit of berries even after making a quadruple batch of jam, baking two pies, and storing enough in my freezer to make three more pies over the winter. A fruity spirit seemed no match for Eva’s straight-up whiskey, but then again I’m not overly keen to have people in uniform knocking on my door unannounced and sniffing around my backyard.
Still, berries are a big thing in Eastern Europe. After you’ve endured a seemingly endless frigid winter, the sight of luscious red berries ripening in 40-degree heat has to seem like nothing short of a dizzying miracle. One way to preserve that flavour is to infuse vodka with sour cherries, cranberries, and blackberries and enjoy the alcohol’s warmth, and the memories of summer imparted by the berries’ essence, year-round.
The thing is, I’m more of a gin girl — there’s something about that piney scent of juniper that makes the spirit so much more interesting than vodka. And it’s hard to argue the merits of a good gin and tonic when the summer months are in full swing. A variation using raspberry gin, tonic, lime, and mint?
It’s no moonshine. But it’s still pretty good. Here’s to you, Baba Eva.
Update: My fourth cousin Schad, who grew up in Saskatchewn in the same area near the Qu’appelle Valley where Eva lived and farmed, wrote overnight to say that he has the recipe for the family “home brew” (which is what they would have called it) written in the hand of Eva’s mother, my great-great-grandmother Anastasia. How amazing is that?
Another update: My mom checked the notes she took over the years as my great-grandma and grandma told stories from their lives, and she had jotted down that Eva’s special suitcases each held six tin canisters of whiskey. When she would arrive in Regina, she’d stash them at the local Chinese food restaurant, where she had an arrangement with the owner, and then would head out into the city to find her customers.
Cordial-Style Raspberry Gin
— from Thane Prince’s Jellies, Jams & Chutneys
Many spirits are infused briefly with fruit before they are strained, decanted, and consumed. Here, the sugar and the long aging (Thane Prince suggests that one year is the best wait period) result in a very developed, sweeter final liquid with an almost velvety mouthfeel — I was surprised to find it pouring almost thickly out of the bottle. The photography in Prince’s book shows this berry gin being consumed as a liqueur, but I haven’t yet managed to pull my bottle out of the fridge without also finding tonic in my other hand.
- 1 pound raspberries
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 bottle (750mL) gin (middle-of-the-road stuff is fine; this is not a place to use your Hendricks)
1. Place the raspberries and sugar in a medium-sized saucepan over low heat. Stir occasionally, until berries are very soft and have released their juices and sugar is completely dissolved.
2. Pour the mixture into a glass container, preferably one with a tight-fitting lid (alternately, use plastic wrap). Stir in the gin and cover mixture, sealing well.
3. Stir the mixture daily for 5 days, then strain it into a clean bottle (use the the original gin bottle or a large canning jar). You might have a little more than will fit back into the container — consider it your gin-maker’s treat. Seal and store in the freezer for one year before using.