A Toast to the Holidays
By Michael Dietsch
Apple brandy takes the spotlight in a season filled with warm winter spices
Brandy ranks among the less heralded of the brown spirits. It conjures up the image of a dark-hued home library, the air perfumed with cigar smoke as grey-haired statesmen sit in caramel leather armchairs discussing the markets and sipping from snifters. Traditionally, these scenes involve the better-known brandies, such as cognac and Armagnac, which are typically produced in France from aged distilled wine. Younger generations may be familiar with brands like Rémy Martin, Hennessy and Martell and even may have imbibed classic brandy cocktails like the Sidecar and the Brandy Alexander, which have recently come back en vogue.
These brandies are produced by distilling wine, usually from grapes, but the spirit can also come from other fruits, such as apples, pears, plums and cherries. For many, these fruit-based brandies remain both esoteric and exotic. And yet apple brandy in particular is one of the winningest concoctions: sweet, tart, bitter and acidic. A perfect after-dinner drink and a marvelous accompaniment to desserts like tarte tatin, the famed French apple tart, it also pairs well with cheese.
Produced in both France and the United States, apple brandy begins as hard (or dry) cider. It is then fermented, obtaining its crisp flavors and aromas from the particular apple species used. And with varieties ranging from smooth sippers to flavorful dessert complements to bright cocktail bases, there's an apple brandy for everyone. Here are a few of the most popular—and delicious—types.
Calvados is among the most celebrated of the apple brandies, and it's been produced for more than 400 years in the lower regions of Normandy, in northern France. Aged at least two years in oak barrels, it is made from any of 100 varieties of cider apples. Most calvados are distilled once, which produces a fresh, clean flavor.
The flavors in apple brandy come from two sources: the fruit and the barrel. Generally speaking, the younger the spirit, the fruitier it tastes. An immature calvados, for example, will taste like the distilled essence of apple—bright, fresh and crisp. As it ages, the spirit draws more flavors from the wood barrels in which it is stored. Older calvados begin to taste similar to other aged brandies, with notes of vanilla, caramel, butterscotch, nuts and dried fruit.
Each calvados is unique: Coeur de Lion VSOP, for example, has notes of baked apples, fresh cider and such warm autumnal spices as ginger and cinnamon. A younger release from the same distillery, the Coeur de Lion Reserve, tastes more of spring flowers and fresh fruit.
Generally speaking, sweeter dishes pair well with younger brandies, ones in which the apple flavors are bright and crisp and can stand up to the sugar in the food. A sweet dessert is likely to run roughshod over an aged, delicate calvados, so older brandies are better left to be enjoyed on their own or paired with a mild, creamy cheese, such as Camembert.
Well-regarded French brands available in the United States include Daron Calvados, Calvados Roger Groult and Coeur de Lion.
While calvados emerged out of centuries-old distillation techniques in France, a country renowned for creating fermented alcoholic elixirs, a different kind of apple brandy has its roots in the United States. Known as applejack, this spirit has its own history that's quite distinct from that of its European counterpart.
In colonial America, frontier settlers sometimes lacked access to clean water, so in place of it, they drank alcoholic beverages like beer, rum, whiskey and cider. The alcohol acted as a preservative, making these drinks less prone to spoilage. Settlers took apples, pressed them and stored the juice in barrels, where it would naturally ferment into hard cider. If they left the barrels outside during the winter, however, something surprising happened: The water in the cider froze on the surface of the barrel. By periodically removing chunks of ice, the settlers in effect concentrated the cider into a liquor they called applejack.
Initially, the word applejack referred only to a spirit made in this manner. Over time, though, it came to be a synonym for its cousin, apple brandy, and today all commercial products bearing the applejack name are made via traditional distillation processes. American apple brandies can vary drastically in terms of flavor and their similarity to French calvados.
One brand, Laird's, based in New Jersey, offers two common bottlings. Its applejack is a blend of apple brandy and neutral grain spirits, which dilutes the apple flavors. Imagine mixing a strong hard cider with vodka and you're on the way to understanding the flavor of Laird's blended applejack. When served on ice and mixed with ginger ale, it provides a tart, fresh apple flavor, but if you're looking for something that's complex and supple like a cognac, the blended product is not the way to go.
The other Laird's bottling is a better choice for sipping: A 100% apple brandy, it works well in cocktails and is suitable for drinking on its own. It tastes more like a whiskey than a cognac—less refined than even the youngest calvados, but that's intentional. With a history of apple-liquor production that dates back to 1698, Laird's embraces and celebrates its colonial-era roots; consequently, its apple brandies are more rustic and youthful than their European cousins. The older Laird's products, released at 7½ and 12 years of age, take more flavors from the wood barrels, much like calvados does. These include caramel, nuts, toffee and so on.
A number of smaller American distilleries have started making apple brandy, as well. Oregon's Clear Creek Distillery offers one of the best. Unlike Laird's, Clear Creek produces an apple brandy with a focus on the techniques and traditions of Normandy, even going to such lengths as aging its brandy in used cognac barrels. The resulting liquor tastes like a well-aged calvados, with notes of tart green apple, warm spices, nuts and vanilla.
Cider, applejack and apple brandy have been used in mixed drinks since colonial times. An early example is the Stone Fence: hard cider mixed with rum or whiskey. If you want to try it, there's no real recipe; just mix them in equal parts or in whatever proportion suits your fancy.
The best-known applejack cocktail is the Jack Rose; the drink even made a cameo in Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises. For something a bit racier, try the Widow's Kiss, which incorporates the equally alluring ingredients yellow Chartreuse and Bénédictine.
2 oz. applejack
1 oz. lime juice
½ oz. grenadine
Apple slice, for garnish
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker filled with cracked ice. Shake, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a slice of apple.
1½ oz. calvados
¾ oz. yellow Chartreuse
¾ oz. Bénédictine
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Maraschino cherry, for garnish
Add all ingredients to an ice-filled mixing glass. Stir, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a maraschino cherry.
Michael Dietsch is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. He has written about spirits and cocktails for various publications.