Posted by Robert Yule, co-author of Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World
Autumn in Virginia evokes two things for me – the splendor of fall colors and the taste of fresh apples. One is a feast for the eyes, the other for the palate.
It was my experience as a guide at Monticello that first opened my eyes to the diversity of apples that used to be a regular slice of our diet. And while Thomas Jefferson focused on only four varieties in his orchards on the mountaintop, it was because – in particularly Jeffersonian fashion – he had meticulously researched and chosen what he considered to be the best among them.
Modern Americans can probably count on one hand the number of different apple types they’ve tasted. It’s hard to fathom that in the nineteenth century, the country boasted some 14,000 different varieties.
Apple cultivation was an important part of European settlement in the New World. Almost all households with a bit of land would have planted an orchard. But the vast majority of these were not for eating – they were for drinking. And so, if you want to experience apples the way our forebears did, get out your glass.
Hard apple cider was a staple of the American dinner table, and was interchangeable with beer as a safe, low-alcohol accompaniment to meals. After all, who trusted the water back then? Of Jefferson’s four favorite apple varieties, two were exclusively reserved for cider making. He regularly served cider at Monticello, a habit he shared with fellow founder John Adams, who was known to imbibe his over breakfast, in addition to other times during the day.
Early Americans became connoisseurs of apple cider, with an attention to type and flavor profile that could rival wine tasting. I first learned about the spirited side of apples while conducting research for a book – “Spirits Sugar Water Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World” – that I co-wrote with cocktail expert Derek Brown, owner of the Columbia Room bar in Washington, DC.
We traced the journey of apple cider as it became a mixer for boozier and more creative drinks that predated the cocktail. The Stone Fence was one such drink: a bracing combination of apple cider and rum, which was one of the most common spirits in colonial America. (The origin of the name is unclear but seems to suggest a comparison between the effects of over-indulging with running headlong into just such a barrier.)
The other spirit you’d likely find in people’s cups during this period – indeed America’s first distilled spirit – was fruit brandy. While rum depended on molasses shipped from the Caribbean, fruit brandies were produced from an endless supply of apples and peaches literally in our backyards. Even without the benefits of a distillery, farmers could produce a primitive apple brandy by simply leaving hard apple cider outside to freeze during the winter, which allowed the water to separate from the alcohol. The process was repeated, thereby “jacking up” the potency of the spirit and leading to its name: applejack.
America’s oldest operating distillery, Laird & Company in Monmouth County, New Jersey, was among the first to gain widespread fame from the apple brandy it produced. Even George Washington took notice, writing the Laird family for their recipe around 1760 so he could produce the same “cyder spirits” at Mount Vernon. Apple brandy was usually consumed unaged, which was likely how it got the nickname “Jersey Lightning.” Or, along with its southern cousin peach brandy, it could be barreled to produce a more mature, aged liquor that you would only open for special guests.
Like cider, the brandy was an adept mixer. It was the star ingredient in the beloved and historic apple toddy, combined with whole apples, sugar, cloves and cinnamon, and consumed both hot and cold, depending on the season.
Apply brandy was likely one of the first ingredients to find its way into the cocktail, a new type of mixed drink that came on the scene during the early days of the Republic. (In fact, the earliest description that historians have found of the cocktail was published during Jefferson’s presidency.) Today we use the word cocktail to refer to any type of mixed drink, but back then it was a very specific category – including a spirit of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.
Apple brandy remained a staple of cocktails from the golden age of the American cocktail in the late nineteenth century right up until Prohibition. The Jack Rose is perhaps the most famous and enduring example – a crowd-pleasing, ruby-red concoction of apple brandy, grenadine, and lemon or lime juice. There’s also the Pink Lady (no relation to the modern apple variety), whose blushing mixture of gin, apple brandy, grenadine and frothy egg white made it the Cosmopolitan of its day.
Prohibition had a devastating effect on the cocktail, destroying a whole generation’s worth of knowledge, technique, and ingredients. Lesser known was its effect on the American apple. Without the ability to create hard cider, farmers abandoned the cultivation of many of these special varieties, and cider orchards, along with our vineyards, began to disappear from the map. Even Laird’s was forced to switch production to apple juice and applesauce to survive those thirteen dry years.
The advent of mass production by larger orchards and the growth of shipping food on railroad cars in the early twentieth century reduced even further the varieties of apples being grown, with looks and durability winning out over taste. The spirits industry experienced its own consolidation while trying to recover from Prohibition and deal with rationing and requisitioning during World War II, leading to a significant reduction in craft spirits. While some distillers grew in the post-war boom years, others sold or went out of business, and national brands became dominant.
In the 1940s, Laird’s purchased The Virginia Fruit Distilling Co. in the old railroad depot town of North Garden, less than 20 miles from Monticello. They began distilling at this modest site, eventually shifting more and more production south as New Jersey’s orchards disappeared through suburbanization. Since the 1970s, this most historic of craft distillers has been making their iconic applejack and apple brandy exclusively at this location, using Virginia apples.
Toward the close of the twentieth century, apple brandy became a bit of a relic, suffering a similar fate to rye whiskey and bourbon. Brown spirits were eclipsed by newcomers like vodka and gin and began to gather dust on the shelves. As with heritage apples, we began to forget the taste of apple brandy, and it almost sank into oblivion.
Luckily this all changed as the country began to experience a cocktail revival in the early 2000s. Modern mixologists searched through old cocktail guides seeking to resurrect our lost drinking culture, only to find that many of the key ingredients were no longer being produced. At this time, Laird’s was one of the only apple brandies still on the market (and still owned by the same family, now in its tenth generation). Craft cocktail bartenders in New York City lobbied hard for its distribution, and it eventually found its way back onto shelves and into our glasses. And thus, apple brandy – the original American spirit – was rediscovered by a new generation of drinkers.
Today apple brandy is again being produced across the country, appearing regularly in modern cocktails as well as the classics. Aged apple brandy is also meant to be savored on its own, like the calvados produced in northern France. You can still sense the spirit’s legacy in Virginia, with craft distillers like Catoctin Creek joining the ranks of Laird & Co. Today, even Mount Vernon’s rebuilt distillery is producing the spirit once again.
There has been a veritable explosion of cideries in the state – Albemarle Ciderworks, Castle Hill, Potter’s, and Blue Bee to name just a few – producing hard cider from heritage apples in the traditional dry style that Thomas Jefferson would have recognized and prized.
To enjoy a bit of liquid heritage this fall, raise a glass of apple cider or try one of the cocktail recipes below.
And please join me and Derek Brown for more spirited history and a virtual cocktail tutorial – along with equally refreshing no-proof versions – at our Heritage Harvest Festival Virtual Event, History in a Glass, on Friday, November 6.
Until then, I’ll be drinking an apple a day. Cheers!
Recipe by Derek Brown from “Spirits Sugar Water Bitters”
- 2 oz rum (or try with rye whiskey)
- Dash of Angostura Bitters
- Apple cider
- Mint sprig for garnish
Pour the spirit into a highball or Collins glass, add the dash of bitters, top with ice, fill glass with cider, and garnish with mint.
Recipe by Jeremy Morganthaler
- 2 oz Applejack or apple brandy
- 3/4 oz grenadine (Try Small Hand Foods’ grenadine or learn how to make your own here)
- 3/4 oz fresh lime juice (or try fresh lemon juice)
Shake ingredients with ice until chilled, strain into chilled cocktail glass.
Recipe by Laird & Co.
- 1.5 oz gin
- 1/2 oz Laird’s Applejack
- 3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 oz grenadine
- 1 egg white or ¾ oz pasteurized egg white
- Apple slide or brandied cherry for garnish
Shake ingredients without ice to froth egg white. Add ice and shake again, strain into chilled cocktail glass, garnish with apple slide or brandied cherry.