After our distant ancestors set to hunting and gathering, they learned something curious -- If they gathered some fruit, maybe some berries, and stuck the leftovers into one of those newfangled baskets, then left for a few days to track down a wooly mammoth, those berries had a nifty new trick when they returned . When you ate them, you started to feel pretty good, laughed a little more and got the courage to chat up the cute cave girl from across the valley. Those berries had gotten fun.
The pull of intoxication is a strong one, and as people evolved and civilization grew, they set about perfecting the arts of fermentation and distillation quickly, because beyond the fun factor, beverage alcohol allowed for a number of things, but two of the most important were preserving perishable crops in a time before refrigeration, and doing it in a way, with distillation, that made for a package small enough to be used as a commodity. You want help building a barn? That’ll be two jugs of liquor, please.
By the time Europe got around to colonizing the Americas, distillation was established at home, and the first settlers in the American colonies set to planting barley and hops (for beer and whisky) and grapes (for wine and brandy). These crops failed. But the people were still thirsty, and the imported stuff from back home was pricey, so they turned to what they had, and what they had in the mid-Atlantic was apples, with commercial orchards existing in New Jersey as early as 1630.
When you have a lot of apples, you press some of those apples into cider. If you are not a killjoy or a Southern Baptist, you let that cider ferment, gaining some shelf life and a light alcoholic kick.
But, if you are accustomed to whisky or brandy, hard cider is a bit lacking in oomph, and the colonists quickly discovered that if they took a jug of hard cider and left it outside on a chilly night, then strained the unfrozen liquid off the resulting ice, they had themselves a strong spirit. This technique, called jacking, had the benefit of being easy -- anyone with hard cider and freezing temperatures could do it -- but it also produced a spirit full of impurities, and it was called both “Jersey Lightning” and “Essence of Lockjaw.”
Enter William Laird, a Scotsman and distiller by trade who immigrated to New Jersey in 1698 and set right to firing up his still. Barley was still scarce, so Laird turned his attention to the abundant apples, but applied his whisky-making knowledge, aging the resulting distillate in wood barrels, and producing a spirit more akin to an apple-scented whisky than the rough applejack produced through jacking. By all accounts, Laird’s product was much appreciated. For a time it was legal tender in colonial New Jersey, particularly used as payment to crews who were constructing the colonial roads, and the Laird family flourished.
Fast forward about 70 years, and William’s descendant Robert Laird was serving in George Washington’s Army. Most accounts indicate that Robert soldiered well, and was respected by both enlisted men and officers, but this respect may have been down to Robert keeping a steady supply of the family product coming for his comrades in arms. General Washington so liked Laird’s Applejack, that at the war’s end, he asked Robert for the family recipe so he could replicate it at Mt. Vernon, and then, in 1780, granted the Laird family the first commercial distillery license in the United States. Over the next fifty or so years, Applejack only grew in popularity, egged on in part by one John Chapman, an evangelist better known as Johnny Appleseed, who, being much more fun that most modern evangelicals, spread not only the Gospel and apple seeds, but also a recipe for producing Applejack. By the 1830s, there were close to 400 applejack distilleries in operation.
But, over time, as America expanded to the West, cereal grains became easier to grow and they were much less expensive to produce than orchard fruit. With barley, rye, wheat and corn in ample supply, American Whiskey became the dominant aged spirit, and applejack slowly dwindled in popularity, until by the 1960s it was more of a regional curiosity in apple heavy regions than anything else.
The Laird family, however, kept at it. Their New Jersey-based distillery is the oldest continuously operating still in the United States. Politically connected from the start, the Lairds were granted a “medical exemption” and distilled through Prohibition, though most of what they produce in their New Jersey distillery today is the kind of liquor sold in a bottle size and at a price point that appeals to college-aged binge drinkers and destitute problem drinkers. If that handle of awful vodka lurking in the back of your liquor cabinet says “Scobeyville, NJ” on the label, it is from America’s oldest distillery.
But they have kept the flame of applejack alive at another facility in North Garden, Virginia, where they still produce a few varieties of apple brandy that are basically -- excepting a few excellent but scarce micro distilleries -- the only traditional applejack left today. They produce three main products: “Applejack” that is only 30% apple spirit, with the remainder made of neutral grain spirits. In the manner of a blended whiskey, this is a light spirit, bottled at 40 proof. It will do in a pinch, but it lacks the rustic beauty of the real thing. They also make a 7 ½-year-old and a 12-year-old apple brandy that are both quite nice, but they are more akin to refined French Calvados than wooly American applejack, and while they are excellent, they do not really provide the applejack experience.
To get that, you need to seek out their 100 proof Apple Brandy. Confusingly, they bottle it under several names, including Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy, Laird’s Bottled in Bond Apple Brandy and Captain Applejack Bond 100 proof. But if it comes from Laird’s, is in roughly the $30 range on the shelf and, crucially, is 100 proof, you’ve got the right stuff.
Each bottle of 100 proof applejack requires about twenty pounds of apples to produce, and it is aged for as many as six years in charred barrels, much as bourbon is aged. The resulting spirit smells deeply of apples, but also has notes of baking spice, straw and baked pecans. In the mouth, you can feel the alcohol, but the apple fruit dominates before the barrel aging brings on vanilla, raisins and a hint of maple. It finishes round, still with some alcohol heat, but the apple flavor lingers.
You can use applejack much as you would use whiskey in cocktails -- try it in an Old Fashioned with maple syrup in place of the sugar, or replace all or a portion of your favorite whiskey with it when stirring up a Manhattan.
But, as the weather cools, it is also incredible over a big ice cube, maybe with a small splash of water. Around Halloween, if you are fortunate enough to be in a climate where a fire is a possibility, nothing fits the drinking bill better. But, critically, it is also a glass of history, the same recipe that warmed Washington’s Army, and in our ever-changing world, there is a certain beauty in knowing that as you sip.
This was originally published in the October issue of Birth.Movies.Death.