As I packed up my home bar for a recent move, my girlfriend came across a bottle of brown liquor that she wasn’t familiar with. She walked it over to me and asked a simple question: “What the hell is applejack?”
For the uninitiated, which is most people, applejack is the original American moonshine. This spirit was hugely popular in colonial times, and you can count Founding Fathers like George Washington among its fans. Thanks to the rise of craft cocktails and independent distilleries, applejack is undergoing a revival in 2021, and a recent feature by The New York Times has a lot of people curious.
Personally, I’m a big fan of this all-American spirit. I even judged an applejack cocktail competition in ye olde pre-pandemic days. In this article, we’ll explore the fascinating history of this moonshine and teach you how to enjoy it in modern times.
So What Is Applejack? And What Does It Taste Like?
To start, applejack is a powerful yet sweet spirit produced from apples (no surprise there). Notes of apple are definitely apparent in the smell and taste, and it reminds most people of bourbon or whiskey. If you were to imagine what a bourbon made from apples would taste like, you’re getting closer to the taste of true applejack. Typically, moonshine isn’t very easy on the palate, but modern applejack is sippable.
Technically, applejack is an apple brandy, and you can make it from pretty much every apple variety known to man, from Red Delicious to Winesap. Surprisingly, applejack has actually been around a lot longer than bourbon or whiskey. In fact, the first commercial distillery in the United States has been making applejack since its founding in 1698. Located in Scobeyville, New Jersey, the Laird & Company distillery has been making apple brandy for 12 generations, and it remains one of the oldest family-run businesses in the country.
Why is applejack making a comeback now? Lisa Laird Dunn, the Executive Vice President and World Ambassador at her family’s famous applejack distillery, told SPY that applejack appeals to craft cocktail lovers who have developed a taste for American-made brown liquors like bourbon. “Cocktail enthusiasts have been enjoying spirits such as bourbon and rye for a number of years now. With its rich history as a classic cocktail staple by pioneer pre-prohibition bartenders, applejack is a natural progression as enthusiasts look to expand their cocktail experience and repertoire.”
During colonial times, applejack was made from fermented apple cider that was stored outdoors in barrels at the start of a fall harvest. As the barrels froze during the harsh winter months, the ice was regularly removed — a traditional distilling process called jacking. Removing water raised the alcohol content of the fermented apple cider from 5% to almost 40%. In more modern times, the production of applejack has evolved, and distillers blend apple brandy and neutral grain spirits to produce a drink that’s usually around 80 to 90 proof and amber-brown in color. It may or may not be aged in bourbon barrels. However, at least one independent distillery is still creating applejack the old-fashioned way. Holman Distillery, located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, makes an apple brandy that’s jacked in the traditional manner.
Applejack can be enjoyed in any number of ways. Finer applejacks can be enjoyed neat or on the rocks. It also makes a great substitute for bourbon to give your cocktails a little more character and sweetness. In particular, bartenders recommend using applejack to create Manhattans and Old Fashioneds
My connection to applejack goes back to 2019, when I was asked to help judge The Barking Irons Applejack Summer Bartending Competition at The Talon Bar in Bushwick, Brooklyn. A few other cocktail professionals and I watched as nine professional bartenders designed and talked about the drinks they were making. Each bartender explained how and why they used applejack to enhance their cocktail’s charisma, sweetness and drinkability.
This wasn’t a contest about flair or cool bar tricks. It was about using something old to generate something new, and to prove that applejack is still a vibrant part of the proud history of American spirits.
The winner that night was Erin Cusick with The Rhubabara Ann, and it went like this:
- 1.25 oz. Barking Irons Applejack
- 0.75 oz. Lustau Fino
- 0.5 oz. Edinburgh Gin Rhubarb & Ginger Liqueur
- 0.375 oz. Honey
- 0.75 oz. Lemon Juice
- 1 dash of Angostura Bitters
- 1 drop of Bittermens Orchard Celery Shrub
- Stir, strain over ice into a cocktail glass and garnish with grated Nutmeg.
This was not an applejack cocktail for first-time drink makers. It’s a skillful combination designed to bring out the best of each of the ingredients. This one requires eye droppers, hard to acquire ingredients and years of cocktail-making skill.
Can You Buy Applejack Today?
Right about now, you’re wondering whether you can open the Drizly app or head to the liquor store and buy a bottle (or two) of applejack for your home bar. While it’s not quite as common as traditional brandy or other brown liquors, the answer is a definite yes. The best applejack is usually made by smaller distilleries, like the historic Laird & Company or more modern operations such as Barking Irons.
Applejack works like bourbon even if it’s actually a brandy. This spirit is great in an Old Fashioned if you’re out of bourbon, and it’s perfect in a Hot Toddy if you’re low on rye whiskey. It delivers a slight sweetness with a high-octane punch that says, “Drink me, responsibly, please.”
If you’re ready to try the best applejack for yourself, then keep reading. I’ve rounded up a few of my favorite applejack bottles for sale in 2021.
1. Barking Irons Applejack
Barking Irons might not be the oldest player in the applejack game, but it is well known and respected by bartenders and cocktail professionals. It’s a New York State original, distilled in the Finger Lakes region and bottled in Red Hook, Brooklyn. It’s a versatile American spirit that works well in Manhattans and does a fine job in a riff on the Red Hook cocktail. At $42 for a 100 proof bottle of apple-based intoxication, you will always have a backup for your best bourbon or rye.
Enjoy this modern applejack in a classic Barking Irons Red Hook:
- 2 oz. Barking Irons
- .5 oz. Maraschino liqueur
- .5 oz. Punt e Mes
- Garnish: Maraschino Cherry
- Add all ingredients to a mixing glass then ice and stir until well-chilled. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a Maraschino cherry.
2. Black Dirt Applejack Brandy
The name Black Dirt might not sound sexy, but the distillery produces an award-winning bourbon, and its applejack has carved out a respectable following in the bartending community. This 100-proof applejack is aged like a good bourbon in charred American oak barrels. With six different batches, all using Jonagold apples, you’ll get sweet maple notes with hints of pepper.
Enjoy this applejack neat, like you would any other fine brandy.
3. Laird & Company Applejack Brandy
As American as Apple pie, Laird’s Applejack is the original, the one that the rest are trying to catch up to. It’s stitched into the very fabric of American spirits, long before rum or bourbon hit the Eastern shores. And if you need an applejack to add to your home bar, you might as well go with the original. After nine generations, Laird & Company now has an entire line of applejack, but I would recommend the distillery’s classic Applejack Brandy, a smooth and sweet 80 proof spirit.
To enjoy Laird & Company Applejack, here’s a great applejack cocktail to try, the Jack Rose.
- 2 oz. Laird’s Applejack
- 1 oz. Lemon or Lime juice
- 0.5 oz. Grenadine
- Garnish: Apple Slice, Cherry
- Add all ingredients to a chilled mixing glass. Shake and strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with fresh fruit.