You Don’t Know (Apple)Jack

Lately, my Instagram feed’s been filled with all things autumnal: Halloween costumes, multi-hued landscapes, and, yeah, a whole lot of apple picking. I’m personally into the coziness of the season and everything the dropping temps are traditionally associated with, but between apple cider and pumpkin spice lattes, seeing a lot of the same admittedly has me craving something less generic, but still fall-friendly. Enter: applejack.

No, I’m not confused, and I haven’t mistyped the name of the cereal for kids who eat what they like. I’m talking about America’s earliest spirit.

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Colonial settlers looked to easy-to-grow apples from their orchards for their original homemade booze because northeast climatic conditions weren’t so good for rye, barley, or corn. Hard cider was the most popular alcoholic drink in the colonies, and with some experimentation and extra help from Mother Nature, it was turned into a more concentrated spirit for the first time in the late seventeenth century.

The lower-ABV cider produced in the fall was left outside to freeze overnight during the winter, allowing unfrozen alcohol to be separated from the ice in a process that would up the cider’s alcohol content. This process of making cider even stronger through the periodic removal of its water content was called “jacking”—hence the name of the resultant spirit. “Jacking” is also known as freeze distillation, fractional freezing, and evaporative distilling, but those terms don’t really roll off the tongue in the same way.

NJ-based Laird & Company was the first commercial distillery to embrace this technique. In 1698, settler William Laird began to distill apple spirits to produce apple brandy. His great grandson followed in his footsteps, and established the family business in Scobeyville, NJ, in 1780; this is the oldest licensed distillery in the country. Their products were well-received, and they famously shared their recipe with George Washington, who used it on the apples in his own orchards in the mid-eighteenth century. Generations later, Laird & Company is still going strong; it’s still the top applejack producer in the US, producing almost all of the country’s applejack.

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Other historical figures also embraced the spirit: John Chapman—or as you probably know him, Johnny Appleseed—helped bring applejack to the western frontier by cultivating apple orchards from which the spirit would be made. And Abe Lincoln, before entering politics, served applejack in his Springfield saloon.

In its heyday, applejack was easy to produce because it didn’t require heat to distill. In the kind of economic system I can get behind, it was even used as currency, specifically for paying road crews, yielding the nickname “Jersey lightning.” But the popularity of this apple-based spirit declined over time.

As grain alcohol became cheaper and easier to produce with the help of metal stills, increased access to clean water, and pasteurization, cider and applejack began to be displaced. Whiskey and rum entered the picture, and the pomaceous potables fell out of favor.  

Fast forward to the mid-twentieth century, when applejack’s legal definition was changed. The Lairds started producing lighter blended products that could compete with vodka and gin, and they established a new standard for blended apple brandy with the government’s help. Before 1968, legally, applejack and apple brandy were synonymous. Both consisted only of apples, and nothing more. Since ’68, though, federal law has required that the name “applejack” only be applied to a blend of apple brandy and neutral spirits that’s aged for four years in ex-bourbon barrels.

For a long time, Laird & Company was the country’s only producer of applejack, but it’s been joined by some competition in recent years. Other applejack makers today include the Harvest Spirits Distillery and Black Dirt Distillery in New York’s Hudson Valley, and the High Mark Distillery in Alaska. And the aged spirit has reappeared in the revival of both classic cocktails, such as the Jack Rose, and modern drinks looking to add a depth of flavor and some subtle apple sweetness.

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Applejack is a wholeheartedly American spirit and a worthy addition to your Thanksgiving cocktail menu. If you want to go the traditional route, opt for that classic Jack Rose cocktail from the Roaring Twenties: a mix of applejack, grenadine, and lime juice. Russell Davis’s version, in Shaker & Spoon’s Applejack of My Eye Box, is a modern update of the classic, with chai–palm sugar grenadine. You could also make a Harvard Cooler, a mix of simple syrup, lemon juice, applejack, and club soda, served over ice. If you’re looking for some ways to warm up as the cold sets in, there’s this Applejack Toddy, or Christy Pope’s version (also in Applejack of My Eye), which calls for cinnamon-apple cordial for an extra apple-y boost.

And hey, if you capture a photo of yourself sipping on an applejack-based concoction in an oh-so-cozy fireplace situation, I, for one, won’t discount the contents if it shows up on my feed.

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