Ark of Taste
Artisanal American Apple Brandy
Aged apple brandy is a spirit distilled from just 100% apples and aged in oak barrels for mellowing, development and integration of flavors. Aged apple brandy is made by fermenting fresh apples into a hard cider, which is then distilled. Post distillation, the spirit is aged in oak barrels. The flavor profile is relative to the apple varieties used, type of oak and maturation period. A well made brandy will have the sweetness of apple fruit in the nose with an underlayment of vanilla and carmelization from the oak.
Apple brandy is the original distilled spirit to the American Colonies dating back to 1630. This spirit was distilled by Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and was one reason Jonny Appleseed set about the cultivation of apple trees. In 1698, Scottish distiller William Laird began producing an oak-aged apple brandy in New Jersey, in the northeastern United States, and throughout the early 1800s farmhouse stills in the Northeast converted the autumn apple harvest into barrels full of the fiery spirit. It wasn't until cheaper alternatives such as corn came under wider cultivation that whiskey started to grow in popularity. Rooted historically in the original 13 colonies, artisanal apple brandy is currently produced my multiple small distilleries on both the east and west coasts of America in apple-growing climates.
Thomas Burford, who restored the fruit orchards at Monticello and Mt. Vernon in Virginia, stated that most all the knowledge acquired around aged apple brandy production was lost during prohibition. Thousands of acres of orchards were uprooted to prevent the production of hard cider and brandy. He tells stories of growing up in the south, when apple brandy was referred to as “our brandy.” During prohibition, people would bring cases of apple brandy to society parties as the libation of choice; they felt that prohibition did not apply to “our brandy”. At Mt Vernon, having rebuilt Washington’s still house on the property, today they are producing Apple Brandy again. Truly traditional American apple brandy, with its distinctive flavors and links to a historical product is at risk. American apple brandy’s place in the United State’s gastronomic history was lost during Prohibition, when orchards and stills were destroyed. When liquor production began again legally in the United States, it was largely disconnected from its historic roots.
American apple brandy is often confused with “Applejack,” which historically referred to a different beverage. Traditionally, Applejack was an un-aged spirit produced by allowing fermented cider to freeze and then separating the unfrozen spirits. Today, products labeled Applejack are produced through distillation (as was always used for apple brandy) and are often either a blend of apple brandy mixed with other spirits, or actual apple brandy itself labeled as “Applejack,” a term “the public has adopted as slang for all distilled and fermented apple products. Applejack is different from apple brandy in that it may be blended with other spirits, whereas Apple Brandy is 100% distilled apple spirits.
Today, the decline of orchards in the northeast, especially those that grow lesser-known varieties, threatens the continuance of this tradition. Craft distillers are also opting to produce less expensive whiskies. Consumer unawareness of the history of the product, along with confusion between the pure, aged spirit and other apple-based liquors means that it is difficult for artisanal producers following more traditional production methods to differentiate their product on the market.
By drawing attention to American Apple Brandy on the Ark of Taste, it is hoped that more small producers will be drawn to producing and promoting this unique spirit in a format true to its original heritage.