Various ‘testimonials’ could be gathered showing that George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, George Fox and other personages either made, drank, or sold apple brandy or did all three or express themselves upon the merits of it, but it is about time that apple brandy stood up on its own legs again.
— Harry B. Weiss, The History of Applejack (1954)
On Christmas Day in 1890, a Philadelphia newspaper noted that the city’s neighbors just over the river had fallen on hard times. “There is a famine in New Jersey which, if it occurred in some parts of the country, would create little anxiety and no distress, but in that State it is a severe blow to a large class of citizens, and the consequent suffering cannot be measured.”
“It is,” continued the report, “an applejack famine.”
The famine, as it turned out, would continue in fits and spurts for more than a century. This deprivation went through cycles of plenty, and stretches of extreme want, and there were always gluts from trees that bore fruit more heavily in alternate years, but the trend was ever downward. Prohibition and the temperance movement that led to it killed off nearly all the small producers. Cider and brandy makers ripped out orchards by the hundreds. After decades of declining trade forced nearly every single distiller of American apple brandy to go out of business or to turn to making other wet goods, however, that old elixir is back.
This past autumn, in the midst of apple harvest season, nearly 20 distillers gathered in upstate New York. Some were accomplished in their field. Others were just figuring their first steps in the apple brandy business. Many had brewing and cider backgrounds. They had convened for a four-day workshop sponsored by the American Distilling Institute to introduce would-be brandy makers to a spirit that’s been distilled in North America since colonial days.
From the early Republic through the first years of the twentieth century, American merchants advertised stocks of what they called apple brandy in newspapers. The term also cropped up in notices for occasional estate sales in which particularly fine examples came on the market. Farmer-distillers across New England and the Mid-Atlantic were known to lay down barrels for personal use. For those with deep pockets, these dead men’s brandies, mellowed by decades in oak, were the spirits to buy. In colloquial use, however, the apple brandy that merchants and attorneys advertised was more often called applejack, apple, apple spirits, cider brandy (or simply “CB” in parts of New England), and perhaps its oldest name: spirits of cider/cyder.
A distinction is made sometimes between apple brandy distilled in a copper still and applejack, made from the high-proof liquid heart extracted from a frozen barrel of hard cider, but in practice, applejack was a common term for apple brandies across the eastern half of the United States. There is no legal distinction between the two names in America. Although blends of apple and grain spirits were common before Prohibition, the federal class known as blended applejack, comprised of neutral spirits and apple brandy, became recognized in the 1960s at the behest of the oldest surviving American distillers, Laird & Company of Scobeyville, New Jersey.
Applejack—one of the many names under which apple brandies have traveled in the United States—was once so core to New Jersey’s reputation that it was known far and wide as “Jersey lightning.” Down in Wilmington during Prohibition, some pup journalist floated the idea that apple brandy was known properly as “Delaware lightning,” but that half-hearted theft of Jersey’s thunder rang hollow. Delaware distillers did make apple brandies. So did their colleagues from Maine to Georgia and as far afield as the Pacific Northwest. Eventually though, almost all of those distilleries stopped making brandy. Some ceased operations entirely, some converted to other uses, some were bought out and shuttered by the competition. By the 1950s, whiskey, which could be made year-round for lower costs from grains shipped from other states, was ascendant. Seasonal, expensive brandy was on the outs.
One could argue that a taste among post-World War II consumers for lighter, blended whiskeys helped drive the decision to cut aged apple brandy with neutral spirits. There may be truth to that, but it is equally true that blended applejack was cheaper to make than all-fruit brandy. By the 1990s, the apple category was so moribund that even calling it a “category” was misleading. Discounting Calvados imported from France and a few distilleries out west experimenting with re-introducing the spirit, the main producer was Laird & Company. That Laird’s 100-proof straight apple brandy is an exemplar of American apple brandy was almost beside the point: it was difficult to find in other states.
Confusingly for modern drinkers, pure apple distillate was often dubbed “whiskey” well into the twentieth century. Modern regulations prevent apple brandy being called whiskey, but the name makes sense in one way: barrel-aged American apple brandies, often aged in used bourbon barrels, can often be substituted to good effect for bourbon or rye whiskey in cocktails. Calvados or Somerset cider brandy from England can pull off that trick only occasionally. In Laird’s home territory, Monmouth County, some local distillers were said to accelerate the aging of their brandies by rocking the barrels in machines during the spring “aging” season. At annual banquets, these distillers sampled new and old spirits alike with friends and colleagues. At one such banquet in 1893, “reverse” and “magnifying” whiskeys made the rounds. Both were apple brandies, but the former is supposed to have driven tipplers to walk backwards while the latter magnified a man’s sense of self-worth so that it made each drinker feel he was the biggest, the best, the bravest in the room. At least, that was the claim. Whether locals called it whiskey, applejack or down-home CB, the knowledge of making such brandies began its slow slide to obscurity toward the end of the nineteenth century.
Who better, then, to help nurse a renaissance than a man whose family has been in the brandy business since the 1780s? Distilling consultant Hubert Germain-Robin, co-founder of the eponymous northern California distillery and author of The Maturation of Distilled Spirits, recently guided a group of aspiring apple brandy makers who met daily at Tuthilltown Spirits in Gardiner, New York. The area, now home to numerous cider makers, was fitting: Orange County, just south of the little Hudson Valley town, once produced more apple brandy than any other county in the nation.
Germain-Robin, who has four decades of experience working with New World fruit, led workshop attendees through the process of distilling, maturing and blending apple brandy. “I don’t believe in secrets,” he told the group. “I believe in sharing knowledge as best as I can.” And so he did. Between more formal lectures with blender Nancy Fraley on still design, terroir, fruit varieties and blends and preparing cider for distillation, Germain-Robin and the workshop attendees got down to the brass tacks—or, rather, copper rivets—of making brandy on the distillery’s 19th-century French alambic. On the first day, they made a stripping run while pulling fractional samples of the low wines or brouillis. Many used the informal setting to ask practical and philosophical questions of the two instructors.
Day Two entailed shuttles to area cideries, distilleries and orchards for tours and tastings. Joel Elder, Tuthilltown’s former chief distiller and founder of agriculture consultancy Quinta Essentia Alchemy, led the group through an orchard where they discussed and sampled cider apple varieties, learned about orchard maintenance and considered various approaches to grafting and pruning trees for cider and brandy apples.
Day Three was back at the distillery for a second run on the restored antique alambic, in-depth discussions of barrel production and management and evaluating samples from Germain-Robin’s personal collection of vintage oak extracts and apple eaux de vie. Students nosed brandy samples from Germain-Robin’s own distillery as well as from Osocalis, Charbay, Clear Creek Distillery and producers from England and France. Most were all-apple, some were blends of apple and pear. They compared the same cider distilled in different stills and examined boisé made more than 20 years ago that was redolent of rancio. At the final dinner, American cider maven Elizabeth Ryan of Breezy Hill Orchard made a surprise visit and regaled the distillers with tales of cider making and colleagues’ apple scion smuggling while plying the group with growler after growler of her fizzy, unfiltered farmhouse cider.
On two different days, ADI Vice President Andrew Faulkner broke out bottles of apple brandies in Tuthilltown’s 1788 historic gristmill. After sampling offerings from Kymar Farms, Huber’s Starlight Distillery, Santa Fe Spirits, Harvest Spirits and other American producers, everyone in the group caught the ringer: a 13-year-old Calvados from importer Charles Neal with notes of pear, soft leather and ethyl acetate. The real surprise, however, came from Andrew Richards of Shady Knoll Distillery in Millbrook, New York. Richards, who was one of the attendees, grows over 100 varieties of apples with his family and managed to slip one of his own brandies into the mix. Made from a mix of 80 percent Gold Rush apple and 20 percent pear on a five-gallon pilot still, the 122-proof spirit had deep, complex tastes and aromas that suggested butterscotch, nutmeg and other warm spices. It was funky and carried a whiff of butter, baked apples and acetic acid, but the shocker was its age. Richards had distilled the spirit a mere six weeks earlier. It wasn’t a perfect brandy, but the enthusiastic response from his peers in a blind tasting was enough to send Richards home knowing he was on the right track.
We’ll be seeing more from Andrew Richards in the coming years. He’ll be joined by distillers in Wisconsin, Michigan, South Carolina, Kentucky, Texas, Pennsylvania and other states that have set their sights on resuscitating that old favorite. Many of them have been bottling and selling their apple brandies while more still are setting theirs to rest in oak, not to be sold until they’re ready. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait for estate sales for a chance to sample these sleeping beauties.