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The trendiest item on bar menus these days is about 400 years old. Thanks to the cocktail world’s antiquarian obsession, applejack is back, showing up in both classic and new drinks. Also known as apple brandy—America’s counterpart to the French calvados—applejack is made from distilled cider and aged in oak barrels. With origins in the Northern colonies, it may be the country’s first distilled spirit.
“That’s why there were all those apples here, for the same reason there were so many peaches in Georgia,” says David Wondrich, author of the award-winning book Imbibe! and one of Liquor.com’s advisors. “There was no refrigeration back then so you couldn’t ship fruit. It was cultivated for making cider and distilled spirits.”
Prohibition nearly killed off the already-niche spirit. Still, a handful of companies survived, most notably Laird’s in Scobeyville, New Jersey. Founded in 1780, it is the oldest distillery in the country. Recently, its bonded, straight apple brandy has become a cult favorite among bartenders. “It is a swashbuckler,” says Josey Packard of Boston’s Drink bar. “It has a bit of bite to it. Because it’s bottled at 100 proof, it mixes like a dream—it will stand up to anything you throw at it.” (Try her Northern Spy cocktail, which is named for an heirloom apple and mixes the spirit with cider, fresh lemon juice and apricot brandy.)
A few craft distilleries are also making the liquor, including Harvest Spirits, in New York’s Hudson Valley. Its Cornelius Applejack is a sophisticated take on what was once known as Jersey Lightning, distilled three times and aged in Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels. Owner Derek Grout uses apples from his family’s orchard, founded in the 1940s—a relative newcomer in the world of applejack.