The Return of America’s Most Patriotic Spirit

Welcome to "Spirit Guide," in which Wayne Curtis demystifies the ever-shifting spirits landscape one bottle at a time. Up now: a guide to the reemergence of American apple brandy, in four bottles.

american apple brandy applejack

Somewhere in the past century, American apple brandy came to be seen as the gap-toothed, barefoot country cousin of a more refined French apple brandy, called Calvados, which projected a more lace collar and cravat sensibility. French Calvados follows certain strictures—two weeks of fermentation, six months sitting on the lees to enhance flavors, distillation in alembic stills. American brandy makers could employ a variety of production methods—and then tweak the final result by adding small amounts of non-brandy sweeteners and coloring agents. Further adding to the confusion, apple-flavored, sweetened liqueurs made their way on to shelves at some point. Some of these had “apple” on the label even though they hadn’t come within a hundred miles of an orchard.

But actual American apple brandy, made from actual American apples—sometimes called “applejack”—is among the nation’s foundational spirits. (While under TTB regulation apple brandy and applejack are interchangeable, in some regions applejack still refers to an apple spirit made though freeze distillation.) In the colonies and early republic, it could be found pretty much anywhere one found apple trees, which meant pretty much everywhere except the deep South and upper plains.

The grandfather of apple brandy is, without doubt, Laird & Co., which was founded in 1780 in New Jersey and has been producing brandy from apples ever since. I recently rang up Lisa Laird Dunn, vice president at Laird & Co. and ninth-generation descendent of the founder, to ask how she thought the apple brandy category had evolved over the past decade. I was met with a long silence, followed by a loud laugh. “Well, now there is a category,” she said. “That’s the big news. We were it for a very long time.”

While that’s not precisely true—Germain-Robin started making an excellent version in California in 1991—it is remarkable how much extraordinary apple brandy is newly available these days, especially given the depths to which it once sank. At its peak, Laird’s had three distilleries. That fell to just one, in Virginia, during the 1970s, and even that had to shutter for a decade because their existing inventory more than satisfied anemic market demand.

Today, apple brandy is back in the good graces of bartenders and home enthusiasts, with numerous craft distillers entering the field.

Why the resurgence? Several reasons: Applejack’s rediscovery rose in tandem with the cider renaissance, which has introduced a new generation of drinkers to the complex flavors of heirloom apples. Some 7,000 varieties grow around the world, and experimenting with heirlooms yields intriguingly different flavor profiles. While Laird’s uses apples familiar to anyone who’s been in a supermarket lately (think Gala, Fiji, Braeburn), many of the new upstarts making apple brandy, like High Wire in South Carolina, specialize in heirloom varieties. Many others emphasize the hyper-local, such as Vermont’s Shelburne Orchards, which makes brandy using apples from the 6,000 trees outside the door.

So, what’s the best way to enjoy apple brandy, either new-school or old? I enjoy it most when I don’t think about it as “apple brandy” but rather simply as “brandy”—a spirit made from fruit, like cognac or Armagnac—and sip it neat or mix it in a cocktail.

While more robust French Calvados can be hard to balance in a drink—it doesn’t like to be overshadowed—its American cousin tends to be more low-key, hence its ability to be conscripted to good effect in traditional brandy cocktails, like the Jack Rose and Sidecar. It can also serve admirably as a whiskey substitute and makes for a fine Old-Fashioned, a commendable sour and even serves well as a more fragrant Cognac substitute in a French 75. Here, an introduction to the category in four bottles.

The Stalwart

Laird’s Apple Brandy 100 Proof

Laird’s is a big and bourbon-like brandy, full of weighty notes of apple pie, with hints of fresh apple. Until relatively recently, the 100 proof was labeled as “bottled in bond”—meaning it was not only 100-proof, but also made in a single season and aged four years. Laird’s dropped that when demand made it impossible to fulfill all label requirements. It’s still 100-proof, and Laird’s anticipates reinstating the bonded claim when supply catches up.

Laird’s also sells an 80-proof applejack, which is a blended apple brandy product (a category established in the 1960s, when lighter spirits like Canadian whisky were ascendant) and is made in part with neutral grain spirit. It’s solid, but hold out for the full proof apple brandy, which is both sippable on ice and serves well in cocktails (try it in a Sidecar), where it refuses to be bullied by other ingredients.

  • Price: $30
  • ABV: 50 percent

The Pioneer

Clear Creek Eau de Vie de Pomme Eight-Year Apple Brandy

Steve McCarthy was among the first wave of craft distillers, opening in Portland, Ore., in 1985, with the goal of converting the bounty of the Pacific Northwest into brandy. He sold his company two years ago (to older, larger Hood River Distillers), but the eight-year brandy on the shelves today, made from Golden Delicious apples sourced from the Yakima Valley, still clearly maintains his stamp.

Although it’s aged eight years in both new and used French Limousin oak casks (like Calvados), the oak notes stay obediently in the background, enhancing rather than dominating. Up front, it’s all green apple, with a bright mid-palate and a fairly swift finish that brings to mind sunshine on a ripe apple on an October day.

  • Price: $35 (375ml)
  • ABV: 40 percent

The Rockstar

Copper & Kings Floodwall Craft American Apple Brandy

Joe and Lesley Heron opened Copper & Kings distillery in 2014 in Louisville, the heart of bourbon country. Their idea? To make a distinctly American brandy. “We wanted to be defined as an American brandy, not as a European-style brandy, not as a California brandy,” says Joe Heron. “But something that was definitive and not derivative.”

Heron chose the company name partly as a nod to the copper used in distilling (they have three pot stills), but also because it sounded like a rock band he’d want to listen to. He was drawn to the category precisely because it was terra incognita among American drinkers, which gave him latitude to experiment widely. Heron initially made a splash with his traditional brandy—distilled from colombard, muscat and chenin blanc grapes from California—but he’s also been venturesome when it comes to apple brandy, producing several variants, including an unaged white apple brandy.

Floodwall is their latest apple release. It’s aged in a mix of used bourbon barrels and smaller sherry butts, then blended and bottled at 100 proof, without chill filtering or additives. The result offers big, boisterous notes of caramel and baking spices on the nose, and a full but not overpowering hit of baked apple. It’s a brandy that could coax a bourbon fan off their island—at least for an evening.

  • Price: $40
  • ABV: 50 percent

The Quiet Outsider

Bartlett Maine Estate American Apple Brandy

In 1982, Bob Bartlett and his wife, Kathe, opened Maine’s first winery, making fruit wines out of local pear, blueberries and blackberries that surprised drinkers with their dryness and elegance. About a decade ago, Bartlett grew restless and traveled to Germany to learn about eau de vie. He ordered a CARL still and had it installed in an outbuilding behind his winery to see what else he might do with fruit.

In what amounts to essentially a two-person operation, he started producing outstanding brandies—earning a double gold for his pear brandy at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2011. Also competing: his apple brandy, which took home a silver. He uses Maine apples (about 80 percent of his various fruits are sourced locally) and ages the distillate for more than a year in European oak barrels—some French, some Hungarian. It has an aroma of bright green apple slightly tempered with a hint of dry oak, with big, round notes and slightly drying tang of a fresh apple on the palate.

  • Price: $35 (375ml)
  • ABV: 40 percent

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Wayne Curtis is the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, a chronicle of America’s most ignoble spirit. He’s been a columnist at The Atlantic magazine, The Daily Beast and American Scholar, and he's currently a columnist at Imbibe and Garden & Gun. He’s also written about spirits for The New York TimesSunsetYankeeenRouteAmerican Archeology and The Wall Street Journal. He's co-founder of the New Orleans Spirits Competition (presented by Tales of the Cocktail Foundation), and he teaches nonfiction writing at Johns Hopkins University. He lives mostly in New Orleans, sometimes in Maine.