In the minds of many, being the first is important.
It can be so advantageous. Everyone remembers their firsts and the person or company that does something first. One of the most common sayings is everyone remembers Neil Armstrong, but not many know the name of those who came after him. Other memorable firsts we can easier remember are who had our first kiss with. How old we were when we first drank booze. What beverages and brand/s we drank, as well as who we were with. Why is it, then, that America’s first spirit, Applejack, flies so under the radar?
My guess is: aside from being a requirement for the Jack Rose cocktail, not many people know what Applejack is. Neither did I. Despite the rise of American spirits, Applejack is still a mystery to me. It is essentially a spirit distilled from apples. Yes, it sounds like Calvados, because it’s commonly and mistakenly referred to as an apple brandy… but that’s only partly correct. Aside from being a French brandy, Calvados is cider-based. Pear and apples are the fruits used to make cider in Normandy, which is where Calvados is made. This means that Calvados is a brandy made from apple and pear ciders, whereas Applejack is just an apple-based brandy.
Blended Applejack also exists. Just like blended American whiskey, it has neutral spirits mixed in with it. The minimum amount of apple brandy a blended Applejack can have is 20%, while 80% neutral spirits is the max. (Neutral spirits are basically the undiluted form of vodka.)
Laird’s has a YouTube video showing their production process, but it lacks a narrated explanation of what the steps are and why they’re doing it. The main takeaway I got was that they use what appears to be a traditional column still. To me, it means they batch distill. Apart from these gleaned bits, I don’t know any more details regarding their production or Applejack production in general. I still have questions such as: What kind of apples are used? How long do the usual fermentations go for? Are they closed or open fermentations? What’s the usual type of still used? Are the aging stocks transferred to more used casks just like what’s done in Calvados? Or are the brandy just left to aged in one cask until it’s deemed mature enough?
The name is said to come from the traditional method of “jacking,” in which you freeze fermented cider to remove the ice and then increase the alcohol content. Cider would be produced in the fall and left outside to freeze during winter. After initial production, it was said to finish fermenting at around 10% ABV. Due to freeze distillation removing water, the strength then increased to approximately 25% to 40%. This freeze-distillation method was historically preferred since it was low-infrastructure: no need for firewood, which was used as fuel at that time, and no need for stills, either.
Today’s blended Applejack is from Laird’s, which claims to be the oldest distillery in America. According to them, their original family distillery was located behind Colts Neck Inn, New Jersey in the year 1717. In 1760, George Washington is said to have written the Laird family to ask for their Applejack recipe. His diary entry refers to a production of “cyder spirits.” Robert Laird was also a Revolutionary soldier who served under George Washington, at which time the Laird family provided the troops with Applejack. In 1780, Robert Laid recorded the first commercial transaction at the distillery in Scobeyville, NJ. Much later, during World War II, Laird converted an area of their distillery for the drying and dehydration of apple pomace for production of pectin to aid in the war effort. Pectin acted as a preservative for war food rations.
If you are wondering how they survived during Prohibition, the sixth generation stayed in operation by producing other apple products like sweet cyder and apple sauce. In 1933, the family was also granted a federal license to produce apple brandy for medicinal purposes.
I strongly link Laird’s Applejack in my mind with cocktails. My first encounter with them was through a local – and still favorite – bar called The Curator. I forgot what drink they made me, but I remember them using the Straight Bottled-in-Bond expression. With that train of thought, not only will I review an applejack, I will also review a cocktail called The American Trilogy.
The American Trilogy was made by Michael McIlroy and Richard Boceato. At the time of the drink’s conception, they were both working at Little Branch and Milk & Honey.
The cocktail is a variant of the Old Fashioned, and the recipe (as stated in the book Sasha Petraske Regarding Cocktails) is:
1 small brown sugar cube
2 to 4 dashes of orange bitters
Splash of club soda
30ml rye whisky
30ml bonded applejack
An orange twist for garnish
The sugar cube has to be saturated with bitters. Add a splash no bigger than a bar spoon of club soda and gently muddle to make a slightly granular paste. Add the whisky, Applejack and 1 large ice cube. Stir 10 to 15 times and garnish with an orange twist.
It’s not mentioned in the book, but the name American Trilogy seems to allude to three of America’s historic spirits: Applejack, America’s first spirit. The sugar, representing rum, which was America’s spirit before the Revolution. (Florida and Louisiana were once well-known sugarcane producers. They probably contributed a large chunk of America’s history of using slaves). Finally: rye, America’s earliest whiskey.
As many know, whiskey became America’s spirit post-Revolution after the Molasses Act of 1733 lit one of many sparks that led to the Revolution. Another reason might have been that rum was consequently seen as the colonizer’s spirit.
I can’t use a bonded Applejack because I don’t have any on hand; Laird’s Blended Applejack is currently the only Applejack in my possession, so that’s what I’ll use. The rye I chose is Sagamore’s Signature (Straight) Rye Whiskey because it’s the rye I have with the lowest ABV (41.5%). That way, there’s less of a chance that the rye will overpower the Applejack. I’m using muscovado sugar for this because I think it’s more flavorful. I’ll start by reviewing the components on their own, and then finally the cocktail.
Image courtesy of Total Wine.
Laird’s Blended Applejack – Review
40% ABV. 35% apple brandy & 65% neutral grain spirit. Aged 3 to 4 years. $19.99 from Total Wine
Color: Barley tea.
On the nose: I get light and brief aromas of apple pie, honey and ginger ale.
In the mouth: The acidity of the apples is more pronounced and upfront. After the acidity, I taste light and brief notes of ginger ale, apple pie, honey, fresh pie crust and very diluted whisky.
As expected, this is a very light and flat spirit. It’s not surprising due to the high amount of neutral spirit there is in the brandy. This almost reminds me of the days when I drank whisky very diluted.
The mouth shows more life than the nose. There’s a bit more life and flavors to get. Judging by the price, this is obviously meant more as a mixer than something to drink neat. It’s not offensive. I just find it too light and dull.
Sagamore Signature (Straight) Rye Whiskey – Review
41.5% ABV. A blend of two MGP rye mashbills. $39.99 from Total Wine. At least 4 years old.
On the nose: The intense rye aromas immediately jump out. I smell rye, cinnamon, adzuki beans and honey. In between those are random flashes of sweet corn, vanilla, herbs and orange peels. At the end are light aromas of cherry-flavored candy, toffee, burnt caramel and sugar syrup.
In the mouth: Very similar to the nose, but not as intense. There’s this tannic sensation like something is trying to stick to parts of my mouth and teeth. This is something I feel when I eat grapes with the skin on, and when I drink really tannic red wine.
I get medium tastes of rye, honey, caramel, cinnamon and adzuki beans. In between those are flashes of orange bitters, sweet corn, vanilla, dill and cherry-flavored candy. At the end are more tannic sensations, accompanied by light, soft and slightly lasting tastes of sugar syrup, caramel and strawberry-flavored candy.
This is pretty good, which isn’t a surprise since Sagamore currently sources stocks from MGP. I find no faults in it. The alcohol burn is pretty much nonexistent, not surprising considering the low ABV. There are no off-notes, either. Everything is what you’d expect in a rye.
Because this isn’t something unique, I can’t help but compare the price to other rye whiskey staples available in Total Wine. Rittenhouse (50% ABV) is $21.99. Bulleit Rye is $20.99. Sazerac Rye is $29.99, and Wild Turkey Rye 101 is $22.99.
While there’s nothing wrong with the Sagamore, the prices of better-known brands are more enticing, and just as good. Pick your poison, I guess.
The American Trilogy – Review
Color: Old Fashioned.
On the nose: Because I used a blended Applejack, the rye and sugar aromas are more dominant. I get fleeting scents of sugar, rye, oranges and cinnamon.
In the mouth: Strong tastes of rye, vanilla, cinnamon and cloves. During some sips, an explosion of vanilla and cinnamon just appears. During other sips, I get more sweetcorn and rye followed by strong tastes of cloves.
I’ve never had this drink made for me by the creators, nor have I been to Attaboy, which is co-owned by Michael McIlroy and where the original Milk & Honey was located. Thus, I have no basis for comparison as to whether this cocktail even tastes right or comes close to the original—not to mention the fact that I didn’t even use bonded Applejack!
All I’ll say is if that if you like the Old Fashioned, you will like this. It’s a stiff and heavy drink.
Lead image courtesy of Total Wine.