Applejack – the Oldest American Spirit

Applejack. There’s kind of a backcountry mystique about it, probably rising out of the original way it was made as early as the 17th century in America. Farmers in northern climates would leave hard cider out in cold weather until ice formed. This was then removed, transforming and concentrating the cider into something with much more kick. Unfortunately, not only the ethanol and flavor, but all of the non-water components of the cider, such as methanol and congeners would be concentrated. Hangovers are caused by these compounds, and so this method is rarely used. But it didn’t require a still, and so anyone with a bunch of apples could make their own. Times, and equipment, have changed.

Pretty much the only applejack on the market today is made by Laird & Co. of New Jersey, and is 35% apple brandy mixed with 65% neutral grain spirits. For apple flavor, I much prefer their Straight Apple Brandy (100 proof) which is 100% apple based (20 lbs of apples per bottle!). Another good, though more expensive option, is the Clear Creek 8 year old Eau-de-Vie de Pomme, or their 2 year old Apple Brandy.

But enough about the spirit – let’s drink some!

One of the oldest recipes using applejack is the venerable Jack Rose. I ended up making 5 different recipes, and by the end I started to doubt the Torani pomegranate syrup I was using. The color often ended up a lurid magenta rather than a delicate rose and a harsh sugar edge crept in by the time the citrus was balanced. The best one to my taste was from Dale DeGroff’s new book ‘The Essential Cocktail’. In it he states that his recipe is reformulated to take the emphasis off of the grenadine since modern commercial grenadines are so poor.

Jack Rose

Jack Rose

  • 1 1/2 oz applejack
  • 3/4 oz simple syrup
  • 3/4 oz lemon juice (I used 1 oz Meyer lemon juice)
  • 1/4 oz real grenadine (Torani pomegranate syrup)

Shake with ice, strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with apple slice and cherry.

After the Jack Rose, my thoughts turned to the Widow’s Kiss, a fine calvados/applejack cocktail. A nice variation on that one is the Widow’s Touch from John Gertsen of Boston’s No 9 Park, using St Germain instead of Chartreuse. Another variation that I just had to try was using applejack in a Manhattan-like recipe.

The Big Apple (Applejack Manhattan or Marconi Wireless)

  • 1 1/2 oz applejack (Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy)
  • 3/4 oz sweet vermouth (Vya)
  • 2 dashes Angostura Bitters (orange bitters for the Marconi)

Stir with small ice, strain and garnish with a boozy cherry. (soaked in rye, bourbon, brandy or what have you).

This one turned out very similar to a whiskey Manhattan, in fact, enough so that it didn’t seem like a good use of applejack at all. Next up is a favorite of mine, a sidecar variant using applejack:

Applecart aka Kiddie Cart

  • 1 1/2 oz applejack
  • 1 oz triple sec
  • 1/2 oz lemon juice

Shake with ice, strain into chilled cocktail glass. Sugaring the rim is a nice touch.

Now, that’s a nice drink. With the 100 proof applejack and the 80 proof Citronge I used, this is a little hot, but the classic 3-2-1 sidecar formula still seems to work. One of the sweeter triple secs like Bols or a sugar rim could be used to tone it down, if desired.

My absolute favorite of all of the applejack cocktails I tried, however, and big hit with my tasters was the Applejack Old Fashioned from Misty Kalkofen of Green Street.

Applejack Old Fashioned

Applejack Old Fashioned

  • 2 oz applejack
  • 2 dashes Fee Brother’s Whiskey Barrel Aged Aromatic Bitters
  • 1 barspoon (or to taste) real maple syrup

Stir and serve in a rocks glass with a big ice chunk. Rim glass and garnish with a lemon twist.

This is really the best of the lot at showcasing the applejack. It’s basically a Plain Whiskey Cocktail with applejack and maple syrup instead of whiskey and sugar. I love how the maple really plays up the floral/fruity aspects of the applejack and the Barrel Aged bitters bring up the bottom with cinnamon and spice notes.

Thanks to Blair for re-supplying me with more of Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy when I ran out. I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface with this versatile spirit here – post your favorite applejack cocktail in the comments!

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