Falling leaves and nippy air are usually the cues for apple lovers to start indulging, but one way of enjoying America’s most patriotic fruit year-round comes in a bottle. Apple brandy, one of the most popular spirits of the colonial days, has been making a comeback that will jack up your cocktail game.
Even before Johnny Appleseed planted the tree throughout the land, early settlers took advantage of the abundant fruit to make apple brandy, also known as applejack. In fact, this country’s oldest licensed distillery is Laird & Co., first opened in New Jersey and now located in Virginia. Lisa Laird Dunn, of the founding family’s ninth generation, credits renewed interest in a quaff that had been waning in popularity to the awakening cocktail culture. A growing number of craft distillers have also discovered its charms.
Some words on nomenclature: hard cider is the low-proof, fermented version of apple juice. Apple brandy is the product of distilling to at least 80 proof. Applejack is a synonymous term unless proceeded by the word “blended,” in which case neutral spirits have been added. It’s a category that Laird Dunn’s great-uncle lobbied for in the 1970s when lighter whiskeys were the rage. It still accounts for most of her sales, but Laird’s virtuosity resides in such products as its 100-proof bottled-in-bond version, made strictly with apples and aged in barrels for four years.
Apple variety is one way for brands to distinguish themselves. Laird’s cleaves to food grade types like Winesap, Honeycrisp and Red Delicious. Copper & Kings, of Wisconsin, finds nonculinary varieties easier to work with. Cornelius uses Hudson Valley fruit, while Oregon’s Clear Creek, only Golden Delicious. Aging vessels also vary. Laird’s is stored in Bourbon barrels, Copper & Kings uses rye casks. Traditionalist Germain-Robin XO turns to French Limousin oak, the wood used for its European cousin Calvados.
Apple spirits can sub for whiskey and grape brandy in a number of cocktails, but try the drink for which it is most famous: the Jack Rose (see the recipe on cigaraficionado.com).