This article originally appeared on Outside
The brisk bite of autumn air always adds some pep to my step on my morning runs, but it also puts me in the mood for apples, which are just beginning to tumble off their branches. As we sink into fall, freshly-picked Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Honeycrisp and more begin popping up everywhere, from farmers' markets to bakeries to hot apple cider stands. In that vein, 'tis the season to remember one of the world's most delightful and overlooked spirits, apple brandy, whose golden glow and heady apple perfume makes it the perfect sip on brisk autumn evenings.
Apple spirits are seeing a revival everywhere from New York state to California to the Carolinas; a welcome, trendy drink that becomes even more profound if you know a little bit about its crucial and complicated heritage on this continent. The bitter history that follows makes today's rich apple spirits all the more sweet.
The Potentially Dangerous History of Apple Jacking
America's original "favorite drink" was not bourbon or rye like you'd expect, but apple cider. The apple tree was key for settlers who tamed the rugged North American continent. As most people know, Johnny Appleseed was not out distributing seeds of Granny Smiths or Pink Ladies, but rather tart, indigestible apples. Although they don't sound particularly appealing, these apples were grown to produce cider, a godsend that was safer to drink than water, and both cheap and easy to make from one’s own trees. As delicious as they are, typical "eating" apples that we enjoy as snacks make bland cider. Bitter apples may be inedible, but via fermentation and distillation, effuse aromas and flavors vastly more complex and beguiling than anything you'll ever get from a piece of raw fruit.
Apple cider is best turned to hard alcohol using a dedicated pot still. But these weren't common in the early centuries of this country, hence the funny-sounding technique known as jacking. Alcohol freezes at a lower temperature than water, thus, in winter, when cider is allowed to freeze outdoors, chunks of ice can be periodically removed from the vat. This leaves behind a liquid of even more concentrated alcohol.
Alas, the process of apple jacking lacks precision. While the hard spirit in applejack contains methanol, a dangerous chemical (think blindness, kidney failure), is removed during the responsible, modern distillation of today, that wasn't always the case with jacking. And at the end of the 19th century, the degradations on the health of American drinkers (and general drunkenness) made applejack the major target of the rising temperance movement, whose ascendance led not only to Prohibition but also to the destruction of millions of acres of apple orchards, effectively killing the apple spirits industry.
Cider apples never came back. In their place, farmers planted grain--cheaper, quicker to grow, and easier to distill--giving rise to our dominant domestic whiskey industry. The destruction of the American orchard had a cost beyond fruit. Lost too was the cornucopia of genetic material contained in apple trees that had adapted from their European roots to American soils and climates.
The Best Apple Brandy
The original and, in my opinion, best apple brandy is called Calvados, which comes from Normandy in the northwest corner of France. Here, ancient apple (and pear) orchards thrive, and scores of different varieties are blended to create a complex, vivid spirit. Oak aging is key, as unaged apple spirits can be a bit harsh. Allowing a raw apple spirit to mature for years in a barrel, can make the difference between tart, unripe fruit and apple pie. Look for Calvados producers like Adrien Camus, Lemorton, and Roger Groult for examples of addictively good spirits. They still have a little bite, but also the warm, familiar, comforting flavor of baked apple. Longer-aged spirits are more expensive, but also more rich and complex.
Because of the loss of cider trees, a fair bit of American apple brandy comes from eating apples, which makes for a simpler, less exciting spirit. That said, America’s bourgeoning apple brandies are well worth trying. New Jersey's Laird & Company, dating from 1698 and the oldest continuously run distillery in the country, is still the largest producer. Out west look for wonderful apple brandies from old-school distillers like Oregon's Clear Creek and California's St. George Spirits. But all over the country, newer craft distillers are also getting into the game. Black Dirt Distilling, Copper & Kinds, and Neversink from New York's Hudson Valley make very flavorful stuff. Outfits like Saint Paul Farms from North Carolina are already producing good spirits, but also growing thousands of new, bitter apple trees whose fruit will be perfect for cider. Follow these spirits over the next few years--they will only get better and better.
So, as the weather turns colder and we all become more contemplative, warm yourself up with a little apple brandy and take in not only the beautiful present autumn moment but also the apple's deep American past.
How to Drink Apple Brandy
For good quality, I recommend aged Calvados. I love to drink it neat in a little spirits tasting glass, tumbler, or snifter. If it's over proof or simply tastes too strong, it's perfectly acceptable to add a splash of water to tame the alcohol.
Calvados is also great in cocktails or even just mixed with a little soda water or tonic. For a simple, yet delicious fall Calvados cocktail, I might recommend an apple blossom. This version I adapted from the recipe on Difford's Guide, which is adapted from the version in Trader Vic's Bartender’s Guide, 1972 edition.
Apple Blossom Cocktail
2 oz Calvados or Apple Brandy
1.5 oz Red Vermouth (I prefer Dolin)
2 dashes orange bitters
1 dash of saline solution or a tiny pinch of salt
Stir all the ingredients together in a pitcher filled with ice and strain into a chilled cocktails glass.
For exclusive access to all of our fitness, gear, adventure, and travel stories, plus discounts on trips, events, and gear, sign up for Outside+ today.