Cider may be the best-known beverage made from apples, but the ways this versatile fruit is made into alcohol doesn’t stop there.
“Apples have more genetic diversity in their chromosomes than humans,” says Eleanor Leger, founder of Eden Specialty Ciders in Vermont. “Every seed is created through cross-pollination, resulting in a unique genetic individual. The diversity of tannin, sugar, acids, size and color is huge, which means the potential for all kinds of [apple-based] drinks is huge, too.”
Although apples are more expensive to grow than grain in North America and yields are less, many producers prefer them simply due to their abundance and ability to handle cold storage. Others, like Neversink Spirits cofounder Yoni Rabino, appreciate the nuances apples provide in his brandy and gin.
“I’ve found they are a great way to express terroir,” he says. “They’re extremely expressive of the growing conditions and flavors of the varieties used.”
Fortunately, for those interested in exploring the global apple basket, a number of spirits featuring the fruit are readily available in the U.S. Here’s a guide to apple-based spirits.
Brandy is a general term for any spirit made through distilled wine. Apple brandy is made by distilling apple cider, technically a wine, or mash into a high-proof spirit. Depending on the type of brandy, it can be clear or amber, and it may be barrel-aged, usually in oak.
“If slightly toasted, the wood will give out more subtle aromas,” says Michel Jodoin, owner of Cidrerie Michel Jodoin in Quebec. “If it’s more burnt, it goes towards the notes of caramel, toasted coconut and even coffee.”
Subcategories of brandy include eau de vie, schnapps and Calvados, an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) protected spirit from Normandy, France, made from apples or pears.
Apple brandy can be sipped neat, but it also works well in cocktails such as A Farewell to Arms, an Old Fashioned riff from Grey Ghost Detroit.
Applejack’s roots extend to America’s colonial period and is often considered to be the country’s first spirit. Originally, applejack was produced via a type of freeze distilling called “jacking.” Apple cider would be frozen, and the top layers of ice would then be scraped off, which left behind a concentrate of high-proof alcohol.
Today, producers like Laird & Company, the country’s oldest applejack producer, make their spirit with stills and barrel aging. Laird also introduced blended applejack in 1972 with apple brandy and grain spirits.
Though the U.S. government defines it as an apple brandy that must contain a minimum of 40% alcohol by volume (abv), applejack is typically distilled to a higher proof. For example, Derek Grout, owner/distiller at Harvest Spirits Farm Distillery in Columbia County, New York, says its Cornelius Applejack is distilled to more than 80% abv before it’s diluted.
“This means that our applejack is less flavorful, but smoother than apple brandy,” he says.
To further differentiate applejack from apple brandy, American producers will age the spirit in barrels for years. Only blended applejack needs to be aged for at least two years in oak.
Treat this high-proof apple spirit like a strong whiskey when making cocktails like the Jack Rose, an American classic that reportedly counted Humphrey Bogart and Ernest Hemingway as fans.
Irish Cream is perhaps America’s best-known cream liqueur, but the category is broad. All you need is dairy cream, something flavorful and an alcohol base.
Domaine de Grand Pré winery makes its Pomme d’Or Apple Cream Liqueur with a blend of ice cider, vanilla cream and a neutral grain spirit. Ice cider is a concentrated apple dessert wine, and it imparts a well-balanced flavor to the liqueur.
Jürg Stutz, the Nova Scotian winery’s oenologist, says the ice cider is “a blend of five or six different varieties.” Those include Golden Russet, Northern Spy and Cox’s Orange Pippin.
Apple cream liqueur is excellent in coffee or spiced black teas, but it’s also served on its own over ice.
Pommeau is a classic French aperitif made from apples in the Brittany, Maine and Normandy regions. Each region has an AOC certification and is made roughly with one quarter Calvados and three-quarters apple must.
Aging requirements vary across the regions. In Normandy and Brittany, the spirit must be aged in oak casks for at least 14 months (with an added 30-day bottle age for Brittany) before release.
In Maine, on the other hand, the spirit must be aged a minimum of 21 months in barrel and 30 days in bottle.
“In America, it’s more loosely defined, and people are sort of doing what they want with it,” says Garrett Miller, owner of Finger Lakes Cider House in Interlaken, New York. Its house cider brand, Kite & String, makes a pommeau that uses an eau de vie as the base spirit, then mixes it with its “most flavorful juice,” usually from Golden Russet and Dabinett apples. The result is aged in used American oak.
Kite & String released its first pommeaus with just six months of aging. “Most of the 2018 vintage should be 18 [to] 24 months,” says Miller. “And then, hopefully, 2019 gets us closer to the 30-month mark.”
In Washington, Alpenfire Cider imparts a smoky component to its Smoke Barrel Aged Reserve Pommeau by aging it in used rye whiskey barrels, maturing it in a used peated whiskey barrel and then blending the result with cider that’s been aged over oak chips and a bittersweet apple brandy.
Since a major component of pommeau is fresh-pressed juice, the flavor of the final product hinges on which apple varieties are used. Alpenfire’s Rosy Pommeau gets its flavor and color from Airlie Red Flesh apples.
“It’s best [enjoyed] well-chilled, straight up as an after-dinner drink or apéritif,” says Nancy Bishop, owner of Alpenfire Cider.
An aperitif is an infused, aromatic spirit with a bitter or herbaceous taste and lower alcohol by volume (abv) than other spirits. Usually, it’s served before a meal to stimulate appetite. Sherry, Aperol, Campari, Lillet and vermouth are well-known aperitifs.
Apple vermouth is made by infusing botanicals into a fortified apple cider.
“Some spices and herbs are more characteristic to the terroir and go hand-in-hand with apples,” says Michel Jodoin, who produces a 15% abv red vermouth from red-fleshed Geneva Crab apples. “Cinnamon, bitter orange, star anise and fir are a perfect fit for [our] fortified cider.”
Eden Specialty Ciders produces three types of apple-based aperitifs. Its founder and co-owner, Eleanor Leger, is quick to differentiate the Orleans aperitif line, particularly the Orleans Herbal, which is infused with fresh basil and anise hyssop, from vermouth.
“It’s not a fortified [wine] like vermouth and we don’t add sugar, but we do blend in some of our ice cider for residual sweetness,” she says.
Herbal aperitifs are great over ice or with a citrus twist, as well as mixed into cocktails like a spritz.
“Vodka is somewhat unique in the spirits world,” says Collin McConville, head distiller at Apple Country Spirits in Williamson, New York. “It’s defined by the end product of the process and not the raw material used to make it.”
So, while a brandy is usually distilled from fruit, rum from sugar, Tequila from agave, and so on, you can distill anything that contains sugar or starch and call it vodka, as long as it’s bottled at 60 proof and above.
Apple-based vodka is usually made by distilling fermented cider at least twice. It should not be confused with apple-flavored vodka or apple brandy, as there’s no lingering, overt apple flavor. Instead, apple vodka tends to be slightly smoother with a sweetness at the finish not often found in grain vodkas.
McConville calls his apple-based Tree Vodka, “a greater sipper on the rocks.”
If you can make apple-based vodka, you can make apple-based gin.
“Gin is a two-step process,” says Neversink Spirit’s cofounder Yoni Rabino. “First, a neutral spirit is made, similar to vodka. Then that spirit is either macerated or vapor-infused with juniper and other botanicals.”
Rabino says botanicals interact differently with an apple spirit than one made with grain.
“You get a much broader spectrum of aromatics with the apple spirit,” he says. “And we found ourselves drawn to the botanicals that were both highlighted by and would showcase the apples best in the spirit.”
Like all gins, apple-based bottlings vary greatly and are influenced highly by the botanicals used. Neversink’s gin recipe calls for 11 botanicals that include ruby-red grapefruit peel, cardamom, star anise and elderflower. Some apple gins use as little as three botanicals.
Many apple gins are smooth enough to drink over ice, but they work well in martinis and other traditional gin-based cocktails.