Apples are F&W's Seasonal Muse through November. They get a lot of play when the weather cools, baked into buttery pies or juiced and mulled with cinnamon sticks for warm cider. But the fruit also has a long history in distillation. And for those of us who prefer to drink our apple-a-day, fall is a great time to explore these complex pours.
The most classic example is the Calvados tradition of Normandy: The French have been turning fermented cider into this extraordinary cask-aged apple brandy since at least the 16th century. Closer to home we have applejack, our own ancestral apple brandy, produced at Laird’s New Jersey distillery since the late 1700s. Applejack was ubiquitous in Colonial America; cocktail historian David Wondrich has even written that apple orchards were first cultivated in the Northeast specifically for use in distillation.
In more recent years, a fresh crop of apple-based spirits and beers have hit the market. Here are a few of our favorites, from vermouths and absinthes that play on European traditions to contemporary expressions of all-American spirits.
Cornelius Applejack: Harvest Spirits, a Hudson Valley, New York producer, is behind this gorgeous interpretation of a classic Colonial applejack. Founder Derek Grout built the distillery on the grounds of an apple orchard his family has owned for generations, so his own homegrown fruit forms the spirit’s backbone. He double-distills fermented cider and ages the liquid in used bourbon barrels to impart a golden color and a heady, whiskey-like perfume.
Germain-Robin Absinthe Superieure: Adjust your expectations before you take a sip of this stunner from Northern California’s Greenway distillery: It is indeed an absinthe, but the liquid is crystal clear, not bright green, and the anise flavor that defines most absinthes is conspicuously mellow. To a base of apple and mead, distiller Crispin Cane adds botanicals like lemon verbena, star anise, fennel, rose geranium and wormwood. The resulting spirit is subtly sweet, with an herbal patchwork that helps it play beautifully in cocktails.
St. George Apple Brandy: One of the finest apple eaux-de-vie we’ve ever tasted is also, sadly, one of the most difficult to find. This gorgeous spirit from St. George’s Northern California distillery perfectly captures the clean, sweet astringency of an apple—short of sinking your teeth into a Honeycrisp, you can’t get much more clarity of flavor. But the eau-de-vie is a custom bottling for Eleven Madison Park in New York; to get a taste you’ll have to visit the restaurant, where it is served with compliments at the end of every meal.
Furthermore Fallen Apple: With a few notable exceptions—like the lovely bottles from Eve’s Cidery in New York’s Finger Lakes region—hard cider hasn’t had much luck luring American beer drinkers away from their favored suds. But in places like Brittany, France; Asturias, Spain; and throughout the UK, the fermented apple brew is as ubiquitous as lager. So it was a stroke of genius when a Wisconsin brewery, Furthermore, decided to split the difference between beer and cider for its seasonal Fallen Apple: a tart, biscuity blend of fresh-pressed cider and Furthermore’s own cream ale.
Uncouth Vermouth Dry-Hopped Vermouth: Red Hook, Brooklyn artisan Bianca Miraglia has made a splash with her collection of fortified wines, made with rigorously local and foraged ingredients. Her dry-hopped vermouth is stewed with 15 edible plants, including mugwort, purslane, purple sage flowers and whole chunks of apples from Blooming Hill Farm in the Hudson Valley. A second infusion of sustainable Cascade and Nugget hops gives the wine a piney bitterness. Although the highly seasonal product is mostly sold out, you can still get a taste at the New York City restaurant Rouge Tomate, where it is served with the tasting menu—or wait until next fall, when the dry-hopped vermouth hits the shelves again.