Before There Was Bourbon, There Was Applejack

No, not the cereal, but perfectly appropriate before noon.

Laird’s Applejack may be the closest thing we have to a national beverage. Never heard of it? Laird’s was United States licensed distillery No. 1. The soldiers at Valley Forge drank it. George Washington loved it so much, he asked for and was gifted with the recipe. (Honest.) Before there was bourbon, there was applejack, but just like American hard cider, Laird’s—and applejack in general—fell off the map. The company produces less than half the apple brandy it did a century ago, and has made up the difference by diversifying with other liquors and imported beverages. But with the popularity of pre-Prohibition-era cocktails on the rise, Laird’s Applejack should be everywhere. It’s easy to play with and easier to drink.

Applejack is a brandy made from fermented cider. Spirits distilled from fruit beverages are more rare these days because they cost considerably more to produce than grain-based spirits. In fact, applejack—even Laird’s—is rarely 100 percent apple brandy anymore. Just before aging the apple brandy in barrels, distillers now cut it with neutral grain spirits (aka vodka) to a strength of around 40 percent alcohol. In comparison, Calvados, the French apple brandy, contains only spirits derived from cider. Calvados distillers use primarily cider apples, dry and bitter, and the spirit they produce makes a better candidate for the snifter. Applejack producers use eating apples, resulting in a sweeter, less subtle spirit—which is why blending the fruit brandy with regular spirits makes sense.

However, applejack’s sweetness is perceived as opposed to actual, a lot like the taste you get from Jack Daniel’s. Instead of bourbon’s maple and oak flavors, with applejack you catch soft tones of apple, like walking past a giant apple tree on a fall day. The difference between Calvados and applejack is a matter of personal taste. Like VSOP brandy as compared to Tennessee whiskey, it’s all about application. In cocktails, applejack is the superior donor, like whiskey with a little something extra. It costs half as much as Calvados, too.

This Christmas, I got a 1930s-era cocktail menu from Gluck’s Restaurant on Royal Street in New Orleans, and applejack was all over the menu. I’ve been poring over it, re-creating its wares since. This was old New Orleans, so grenadine, curaçao, and bitters figure heavily in the drinks. To make Gluck’s Honeymoon cocktail, shake with ice two parts applejack and one part Bénédictine (one of those fine French herbal liqueurs), as well as a splash each of lemon juice and curaçao or triple sec. Serve the Honeymoon up or on the rocks. The restaurant’s Horse’s Neck is a simple highball with applejack and ginger ale, measured to your desired proportion and complemented by a healthy squeeze of lemon and a few dashes of Peychaud’s bitters.

For a morning cocktail far superior to the mimosa, I like Gluck’s classic New Orleans Buck with applejack replacing the rum. Shake with ice 1 ounce applejack, 1 ounce orange juice (strained), and ½ ounce lemon juice. Serve in a wine glass or champagne flute, and top with cold ginger ale or sparkling wine. Applejack also makes a wonderful hot toddy; just add hot water and lemon, or even better, warm cider.

As for applejack in Seattle, I must send you to an applejack-dan, Murray at Zig Zag, for a Diamondback. Made with applejack, B&B, and egg, it’s an experience beyond a mere tasty beverage. Ask your neighborhood bar to carry a bottle of Laird’s or check your local liquor store, since it’s a common stock item. I’d love to see this spirit’s lost glory restored and for applejack to again become an American bar staple.

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