A few weeks ago I published an article in The New York Times about California apple brandy. It was a piece I wanted to write for a long time because, quite simply, I love the stuff. But not just California’s — all apple brandy. It’s a terribly underrated spirit, one that’s overlooked as something antiquated, obsolete, and with a reputation as an outlying “country” spirit.
These things may all be true, but they’re also what makes apple brandy great. After all, the taste of apple is iconic and universal, especially to Americans. As Michael Pollan wrote in his excellent apple chapter in “The Botany of Desire”: “before then [the late 19th century] the sensation of sweetness in the lives of most people came chiefly from the flesh of fruit. And in America that usually meant the apple.” The thrill of apple brandy is that it expresses exactly that iconic flavor of the apple and all of the taste memory of sweetness that goes with it, while detaching the actual sugar and replacing it with that bracing burst of alcohol.
Its history in America makes it all the more appealing. What could be a more pleasantly shocking revelation (and a more American one) than the one in Pollan’s book that Johnny Appleseed, reputed to be a samaritan and evangelist for apples, was actually a savvy capitalist selling not fruit, per se, to homesteaders, but the raw ingredients to produce alcohol.
Of course, in those times, apple spirit was much less likely to be a brandy (i.e. aged in oak barrels) but rather to be applejack. The word applejack comes from the verb “jacking,” which meant freezing as a way to concentrate the alcohol. See, apple juice could be easily, naturally fermented, but that gets you to an alcohol level that’s only 6 to 10 percent, about the same as strong beer. If you leave that cider out in the dead cold of winter, the water content of the cider freezes and can be strained out, leaving pure alcohol.
Unfortunately with jacking, all the alcohols and congeners are left, not just the favorable ones that can be isolated in distillation. Therefore you get a harsh, rugged, somewhat poisonous brand of liquor. It’s this backcountry kind of distillation that probably gave applejack its reputation for rusticity, and one can imagine that more polished whiskey products that came out of stills would be preferable to hillbilly swill.
But neither applejack nor apple brandy is made that way anymore. Today, we have beautiful apple spirits from both coasts as well as access to Calvados, that beautiful, aged apple brandy from Normandy, France. While I love sipping apple brandies such as Calvados or Germain-Robin’s from Mendocino, there’s also a great American tradition of using applejack in cocktails. It’s ironic that these drinks have fallen out of favor in the last 15 years, superseded by libations like Appletinis, etc. — drinks that have no real apple products in them at all. For the real thing, there are still a few great recipes hanging around. Here are three of my favorites, and they’re perfect for your winter gatherings.
Note: Laird & Co. has been distilling apples in New Jersey since 1698, and today their applejack remains one of the most common apple spirits you’ll find on store shelves. Sadly, I don’t recommend their basic, inexpensive applejack for use in cocktails, considering it’s only 35 percent apple spirit blended with 65 percent neutral grain spirit. I prefer using Laird’s bonded apple brandy or Clear Creek Distillery’s 2-year-aged apple brandy or a Calvados when making apple cocktails for more intense flavor.
I first tasted this cocktail a few years ago in the course of a decadent December lunch at New York’s Grammercy Tavern. I loved it for its sweet-sour tang and the way it perfectly evoked the essence of autumn and winter in New England. The recipe dates to at least the 1930s, but the early versions of it make something terribly sweet. It has been modified over the years to produce something much more tasteful and dry. Here’s my favorite version.
Combine the ingredients in a shaker, add ice and shake for 10 to 15 seconds. Strain into a chilled martini glass and serve.
A long lost classic. David Wondrich writes in his book “Imbibe” that “before the Mint Julep and the Cocktail assumed the role [the apple toddy] was so popular that it was something of a signifier of Americanness.” Its first citation, he notes, was in 1792, though it has all but disappeared since Prohibition. Whatever the case, it’s absolutely delicious and rivals any other toddy or hot-buttered rum as best winter warmer on a cold night. It only requires some preparation in that you must bake apples to render the complete effect.
Simply peel and core an apple and bake it at 350 F for 25 to 30 minutes until it’s tender and brown. Dissolve the sugar in a mug in about 1 to 2 ounces of boiling water. Stir in the apple brandy and add the apple. Top with a little more hot water and sprinkle some nutmeg over the top. Adjust sweetness or dilution to taste.
This cocktail comes from Kingsley Amis in his book “Everyday Drinking,” in which he states that it is one of his originals. I like it for its apple-ness and for its creative twist on the Champagne cocktail. While Amis calls for Calvados, the drink can obviously be made with good old American applejack as well.
Add the sugar and bitters to a glass with a little bit of hot water to dissolve. Add the brandy and ice and stir. Strain into a Champagne flute, add cider and garnish with an apple slice.
Jordan Mackay is the wine and spirits editor for San Francisco’s metropolitan magazine 7×7 and writes The Juice column for Chow. In addition, he’s a contributing writer for Wine and Spirits magazine and a regular contributor to Decanter and the San Francisco Chronicle.