“It is remarkable,” Henry David Thoreau famously observed in an 1862 essay for The Atlantic, “how closely the history of the apple-tree is connected with that of man.” If the apple is essential to the history of humanity, its alcoholic spirit is central to the history of the United States.
Thankfully, after a long, post-Prohibition period of decline, apple spirits are experiencing a revival, a fact worth celebrating for a couple of reasons. First, at their best, apple brandies are uniquely delicious, doing what only great distillates can do: expressing the essence of the fruit in multiple dimensions at once—in this case, the sense of a crisp, juicy apple can appear alongside the delicious, baked warmth of fresh apple pie. Second, the apple’s link with our history is vital and fascinating; when you sip its spirit, you connect with our deepest American roots.
The story of apple spirits in the U.S. is inseparable from apple cider (the alcoholic “hard” kind), as you can’t produce the former without the latter. Before Prohibition, as Michael Pollan writes in his book The Botany of Desire, “hard cider was the fate of most apples grown in America … Apples were something people drank.” Cider was safer than water and, if people wanted harder fare, easily distilled into spirits, also known as applejack or apple brandy.
Apple trees helped domesticate the wild North American frontier. The hagiography of Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman supplying the American frontier with a wholesome food source has been famously recast, as historians pieced together that he was sowing seeds not of Fujis or Honeycrisps, but inedible apples meant for producing alcohol. Growing apple trees from seed, as Chapman advocated, almost invariably yields something so tart, bitter, acidic, or tannic as to be inedible. The brilliant irony contained within these bitter, phenolic compounds—and in the parts we don’t eat— is that they contain a great deal of an apple’s flavor and aromatic complexity, unlocked via alcoholic transformation. Food apples—beautifully balanced between sugar, acid, and tannin—tend to make rather insipid cider and distillate.
Applejack, basically apple moonshine, was one of the targets of the temperance movement, and Prohibition resulted in the demolition of millions of acres of apple orchards. Grain, cheaper, easier to grow and distill, replaced the orchards, which were never replanted. Lost was not only the quantity of trees, but the vast trove of apple genes adapted to the North American climates. As the demolished spirits industry regenerated post-Prohibition, Americans gained a taste for grain spirits, and apples became a thing for eating, reproduced by grafting, not grown from seed.
The production method of apple brandies is similar to most fruit distillates. First, apple juice is fermented, which can be done solely with the pure pressed juice, as with white wine, or with a juicy mash, like red wine. After fermentation, the resulting cider—typically between four and six percent alcohol—is distilled in a pot still, two or three times until the desired strength and flavor profile are reached. That spirit is then usually aged in new and/or used oak barrels to soften, evolve, and round out.
In colonial times, people practiced a unique, primitive, and elemental distillation method called “jacking,” in which the fermented cider is allowed to freeze. Since water freezes at a higher temperature than alcohol, the continual removal of ice from the barrel left behind liquid alcohol of ever-increasing concentration. Given typical winter lows, the resulting spirit can reach up to around forty proof, about half of what most apple brandies are today. Obviously, this crude process does not allow for the removal of injurious compounds, which helped make applejack such a target of reformers.
Today, the craft distilling movement has been a great friend to the apple, as industrious folk from California to New England discover the value contained in the scraggly old orchards that survived. While living on the West Coast in the early mid-2000s, I met enterprising distillers who gathered fruit that small orchard owners were letting fall to the ground, as harvesting the fruit was a money-losing proposition. I saw local apple brandies emerging—such as from the renowned distillers Germain-Robin in Mendocino and Clear Creek in Oregon—that today they are joined by other Bay Area luminaries like San Francisco’s Hotaling & Co (formerly Anchor Distilling) and St. George Spirits.
Just a few years later, in upstate New York, distillers like Neversink and Black Dirt were also discovering the magic of the apple. Now that story is working its way down the East Coast to Virginia and the Carolinas, which are about the southernmost limit of apple territory (the trees need a certain amount of cold to thrive). Copper & Kings, smack in the middle of the Kentucky bourbon zone, makes a delicious apple brandy, as does the venerated Tattersall Distilling of Minnesota. Basically, anywhere you can find apples these days you can find apple brandy.
For labeling purposes, the federal government makes no distinction between apple brandy and applejack, though many applejacks are blends of apple brandy and neutral spirit, resulting in a lighter, less apple-forward spirit. Laird & Company of New Jersey, the dominant apple spirits brand in the country and the oldest continually operating distillery in the U.S. (it began producing applejack in 1698), bottles two applejacks—a blended one and a straight, 86-proof version aged for three years in cask. These are separate from their line of apple brandies.
I would be remiss not to mention le roi of apple brandy, Calvados. Similar, yet different from American versions, Calvados is distinctive not in its distilling method but in its apples (and occasional use of pears). This region in northwest France boasts around 750 different varieties of apples meant for cider and distillation—most of which are not found in North America. The best Calvados—such as Camut, Lemorton, or Groult—are distinctly and sumptuously expressive of apple, but will taste subtly different from American apple brandies.
“The era of the Wild Apple will soon be past,” lamented Thoreau in that same essay, and he was right. But the spirit of the apple lives deliciously on.
Post-Script for the WSET Spirit Student:
In its section, understanding the label, the official website of the Calvados appellation breaks down everything you need to know about terminology on Calvados labels:
- VS (Very Special) / Three stars / Three apples: denotes an ageing period of at least 2 years.
- Reserve/ Old: denotes an ageing period of at least 3 years.
- V.O. (Very Old) / VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) / Vieille Réserve: denotes an ageing period of at least 4 years.
- Hors d’âge / XO (Extra Old) / Très Vieille Réserve / Très Vieux / Extra / Napoleon: denotes an ageing period of at least 6 years.