Dear hooch industry: You can keep your sickly sweet “apple pie-flavored” moonshines, nasty neon green “apple” liqueurs that bear zero resemblance to a tart Granny Smith, and ersatz “apple spice” whiskies that have probably never been within 100 feet of an orchard.
Finally, we have a crop of spirits worthy of Johnny Appleseed that are (shocker) actually made from apples—no air quotes needed.
Pegging it to the hard cider revival and craft distilling boom in general, some in the booze industry are even placing bets that aged apple brandies are poised to fill demand for brown spirits should rumblings of bourbon, Japanese whisky, and single-malt Scotch shortages come to head.
“People realize they can distill with whatever they have their hands on,” says Daniel Pucci, cider director at New York’s Wassail. For many regions in the U.S., particularly New York state, Virginia, and pockets of the Pacific Northwest, that means local apples in abundance.
Applejack is widely considered America’s oldest spirit, dating back to orchards first planted in the 1600s. It’s this traditional style of apple brandy that offers some of the most exciting bottlings on the market right now.
Historically the spirit was made from cider that was fermented and then sat outside in winter; thirsty colonists would later drill a hole and extract the liquid from the center of the cider that was too high-proof to freeze. That method of “freeze distillation,” or “jacking,” is no longer permitted by U.S. regulators, but its high-proof, concentrated flavor profile still has fans.
For years, the category was pretty much locked up by New Jersey producer Laird’s—a respected producer of apple booze that’s been in the business since the 1700s—but a handful of producers from New York’s Hudson Valley, including Harvest Spirits and Black Dirt Distillery, are now giving that standard a run for its money. The latter’s new single-barrel applejack, released in December, is particularly astonishing, like baked fruit in a glass, drizzled with rich caramel.
Jeremy Kidde, co-owner of Black Dirt, which itself is part of a sprawling Warwick Valley winery operation that also makes Doc’s hard ciders, cites single-barrel whiskeys as his inspiration—that is, practicing assiduous micro-experimentation on different apple varieties, proof levels, aging time, and barrel char levels. Bourbon fans may recognize the approach as similar to Buffalo Trace's “Project X” warehouse.
“A few years ago, there were no applejacks on the market,” said marketing exec Elliott Phear, who along with Casey McGrath, teamed up with Kidde to roll out a 100-proof apple brandy licensed under line Barking Irons apparel line. “A lot of people are making whiskeys, that’s cool. I thought, here’s a space with a lot of opportunity,” he said of applejack. The distillate is made upstate by Black Dirt and then aged at Brooklyn’s Van Brunt Distillery. A limited run of 400 cases was made in 2015; a second batch will be released in spring 2016.
New World Calvados
While rough-and-tumble applejack may appeal to bourbon drinkers, a growing number of elegant, fruit-forward apple brandies are likely to appeal to connoisseurs of Calvados, the apple brandy made in Normandy that rivals Cognac’s famous grape brandy for complexity and deliciousness.
As Wassail’s Pucci explains, applejack is often aged in American oak, typically former bourbon barrels, which adds intense vanilla and caramel flavor. Apple brandy is typically is aged in more neutral French oak, which mellows the spirit while allowing the fruit to shine through.
For example, St. George California Reserve Apple Brandy, made in Alameda, Calif., has delicate apple and pear notes overlaid with just a hint of butterscotch, and an appealing lightness on the palate. Another California producer, Mendocino’s Germain-Robin, has a cult following for its rich, complex Heirloom Apple Brandy, made in small batches on an antique copper still using such obscure varietals as Black Twig, Ribston Pippin, and Wickson.
Across the country, a newer New York entrant, Port Chester's Neversink Spirits, is making a clear eau-de-vie-like spirit with a blend of local apples. The bottles hit liquor store shelves in 2015, and it’s available on Wassail’s brandy list, too.
Although the majority of apple spirits are brandy, noteworthy outliers exist. For example, Harvest and Tuthilltown Spirits both have lightly sweet, apple-based vodkas. The latter also makes a citrusy Half Moon Orchard Gin using an apple-and-wheat base (though there’s nothing much apple-y about the taste). Negroni drinkers may look to Vermont’s Orleans Bitter, a rosy, herb-infused “aperitif cider” that mimics the appearance and flavor of Campari.
But perhaps the most interesting new entrant is Wigle’s Walkabout, an apple whiskey from Pennsylvania craft producer Wigle Whiskey. Chatham University Food Studies graduate students developed the product—a blend of hard cider made from several types of apples (Jonathan Gold, McIntosh, SweeTango, Gala, Ginger Gold, Cortland, and Honeycrisp) with a four-grain whiskey (39 percent winter wheat, 26 percent Wapsie Valley corn, 19 percent rye, and 16 percent malted barley)—as part of a product development course taught by Wigle co-owner Meredith Grelli.
“There’s a lot of shame in the whiskey category,” says Grelli, which has taken on some of the worst unbounded-in-nature attributes of flavored vodkas. (Ahem, Fireball.) “We said, let’s come up with a flavored whiskey we’ll be proud to drink.”
Inspired by the legend of Johnny Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed), who scattered apple seeds around the U.S. in a bid to grow fruit trees explicitly intended for hard cider, this is the second year that Wigle has produced its limited-edition Walkabout label. It tends to sell out quickly. Luckily, more products may be on the way.
“We’re exploring more apple ferments and ciders,” Grelli says. “We are looking at it in every form—ciders, brandies, whiskey—every iteration. You can do combinations. This is something that America could put its stamp on.”
That is, if people drink it. We recommend you start with the following bottles and cocktails below.
Five Apple-Based Bottles of Booze to Try
Barking Irons Applejack ($46): Warming maple and oaky vanilla, with a hit of clove and cinnamon heat on the finish. It's 100 proof; try it mixed with grenadine and citrus in a Jack Rose or in other cocktails. barkingirons.com
Black Dirt Single Barrel Apple Jack ($29 for 375mL): This limited-edition bottling has rounded notes of baked apple and caramel accented with apricot and sherry. It’s 50 proof, so cool it with a cube of ice. Can’t snag a bottle? Try the standard-issue, bottled-in-bond applejack instead. blackdirtdistillery.com
Cornelius Applejack ($40): Fresh and pretty, fragrant with honey and pear and palate-coating vanilla. Each bottle is made with more than 60 pounds of Hudson Valley apples. Sip or mix. harvestspirits.com
Neversink Apple Brandy ($27 for 375 mL): This unaged brandy is clear in the glass and offers a crisp, clean expression of apple—although some will miss the layer of vanilla that barrel aging provides. neversinkspirits.com
Wigle’s Walkabout Apple Whiskey ($34 for 375 mL): This copper penny-hued spirit mixes cranberry-like tart notes with toffee and a mildly herbaceous finish with a flick of black pepper. Limited availability. wiglewhiskey.com
Applejack Cocktail Recipes
Lady in Red
Created by Jade Sotack for Wassail, NYC
Lemon wedge, to rim glass
Sugar, to rim glass
1½ ounces apple brandy
½ ounce Cointreau
¾ ounce lemon juice
¼ ounce simple syrup
3/4 ounce red wine
Cut a slit in a lemon wedge and run it halfway around the rim of a Nick & Nora glass to moisten it. Roll the moistened edge of the glass in sugar. Set the glass in the freezer to chill.
In a cocktail shaker, combine remaining ingredients except red wine. Add ice and shake vigorously. Strain into prepared glass. Hold a spoon over the top of the drink, rounded side up, and gently pour the red wine over the spoon to “float” it on top of the drink.
The Barking Mule
Created by Ivy Mix (of Leyenda, Brooklyn) for Barking Irons
1 large ripe strawberry
2 ounces Barking Irons Applejack
1 ounce ginger-infused simple syrup
1 ounce fresh lime juice
In a cocktail shaker, muddle the strawberry. Add the next three ingredients and a handful of ice. Shake well and strain into a tall glass filled with ice. Top off with soda water. Garnish with a lime slice and candied ginger speared on a toothpick.
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