You can always tell what a bar manager’s secret passion is. You’ll look at the backbar and no matter how well curated it is there will always be a collection of bottles that are out of place, an odd amount of variety in an esoteric category. For me, that guilty pleasure is apple brandy.
Bourbon may have become the United States Native Spirit through Congressional Resolution in 1964 but Apple brandy, that New Jersey Lightning, is the real first spirit of the colonies. In the cold New England winters colonists would leave cider outside overnight allowing it to freeze. Since alcohol doesn’t freeze what was left over after this rudimentary distilling, or “jacking”, process was a more concentrated alcoholic apple beverage.
This proto-brandy became known as Applejack and had as large a reputation for causing blindness from poor ‘distilling’ as it did for getting the drinker drunk. But it wasn’t long before industrious businessmen started cleaning things up. Robert Laird was a Continental Soldier who served under George Washington during the Revolutionary War. There are records of Washington requesting Laird’s family recipe for “cyder spirits” which has lead to the claim that Laird supplied Applejack to the Continental Army. After the war Laird founded a distillery in Scobeyville, NJ and which is now the oldest licensed distillery in the United States, receiving License Number 1 from the U.S. Treasury in 1780. But the “cyder spirits” and their hard cider cousins did not fair well under prohibition.
Prior to Prohibition most of the apple orchards in the colonies were not the juicy, edible fruit that we think of today. They were in fact the hard, bitterly sour variety that make excellent cider. Apples are what are known as extreme heterozygotes. Essentially, the latent genetic diversity of the actual seeds means that a tree grown from a seed will bare almost no resemblance to the varietal of the parent tree and more often than not will be completely inedible. These types of apples are known as “spitters.” To create consistent apple varieties a process known as grafting, where a budding branch of the parent tree is implanted into existing rootstock essentially cloning the original tree. There were a few issues with getting active graft to the New World in those early Colonial days which meant that most attempts at growing apple trees were from seeds. And while these spitters were terrible for eating they were perfect for cider.
On the frontier, Cider was actually safer to drink than the water so settlers again turned to cider orchards. And many of these orchards were in fact planted by John Chapman, or as he’s better known, Johnny Appleseed. John Chapman was a real man who bares an actual resemblance to his folkhero self. He did wander the frontier planting apples from seeds, but Chapman was more a shrewd businessman than a carefree vagabond.
Starting in 1872, the Ohio Company of Associates promised potential settlers 100 acres of land if they could prove they had made a permanent homestead in the wilderness beyond Ohio’s first permanent settlement. To prove their homesteads were permanent the settlers were required to plant 50 apple trees and 20 peach trees in three years. This proved they were sticking around because an average apple tree took ten years to bear fruit.
Chapman realized that if he stayed just ahead of the settlers, doing the difficult orchard planting he could sell them for profit to the incoming frontiersmen. And being a member of the Swedenborgian Church his belief system explicitly forbade grafting because the thought it caused unnecessary suffering for the plants. Thus his orchards were grown from seeds and unfit for eating but perfect for cider.
Unfortunately, most of Chapman’s orchards were cut down during Prohibition when FBI officers were targeting cider productions and orchards helping hasten the downfall of America’s cider tradition. Meanwhile, the apple brandy world had consolidated with Laird’s being the only game in town. The drinking populace’s tastes also changed looking for lighter, less flavorful options like vodka and blended whiskey which transformed Applejack into a blend of apple brandy and grain neutral spirit. By 1970 Laird’s had shrunk from three distilleries to its single plant in New Jersey. They even ceased production for several years as the stocks on had were more than sufficient for demand.
Flash forward to 2017 and Apple Brandy and cider are riding a resurgent wave. Craft cider producers have expanded the category and given it respectability. Apple brandy got to come along for the ride and also got it’s own boost from the Cocktail Renaissance. Many classic drinks called for “applejack” and I know personally it helped be ease many drinkers off of drinks calling for “apple pucker.”
The variety of apple brandy these days is rather astounding. From classic French Calvados, to Laird’s New Jersey Bottled-In-Bond, to Germain Robin’s French style California apple brandy, to Copper and Kings new wave distinctly American Apple Brandy made right in the heart of Bourbon Country. They are all as unique as the seeds that they sprang from. Which is why I need so much shelf space for them.