Things like baseball, country music and apple pie are inextricably intertwined with the American identity. Of course bourbon, America’s native spirit, is also (rightly) revered as one of the country’s greatest exports. But the spirit that first captured the hearts of colonial America came into existence a full century before bourbon: American apple brandy. America’s first spirit—a nickname sadly not recognized by Congress—has been around since the 1700s. Thanks to the abundance of spirit-friendly orchards, apple brandy and its ilk appealed to industrious businesspeople and thirsty citizens alike.
Somewhere along the way, however, apple brandy lost a bit of its appeal in the United States. Likely this was due to factors like pest, disease, Prohibition and the simple passing of time. However, in recent years, American distillers have made headway in reviving the category for modern drinkers. From a deep-rooted producer in New Jersey to an enterprising distillery in the southwest, these American apple brandies are worth seeking out. Use it in a Jack Rose or an Old Fashioned, or simply sip it solo.
Odds are you’ve seen the Laird’s label gracing the shelf of a liquor store or a backbar. What you may not know about this company is that it’s been around since at least the late 1700s. Based in Monmouth County, NJ, Laird’s is the oldest family-owned distillery in the United States. Its beginnings can be traced to Alexander Laird, a Scottish immigrant who came to colonial America in 1698 and started distilling applejack soon after.
Though there’s currently no legal distinction between applejack and apple brandy, the company still distinguishes between the two. The brand markets both the popular Laird’s Applejack, which it describes as an apple whiskey made from a blend of apple brandy and neutral grain spirits, and a range of traditional apple brandies. This bottled-in-bond offering uses a 200-year-old recipe, requiring it to be aged at least four years in charred oak. It’s bottled at a hearty 100 proof.
Known for its line of American brandies made in the middle of Kentucky bourbon country, Copper & Kings combines the best of two wholly American spirits. This 92-proof apple brandy was first launched in late 2019. Distilled from fresh-pressed apple cider, it matures in both used bourbon and new, charred American oak barrels. The resulting spirit has some of the familiar qualities of bourbon, yet displays the distinct, yet subtle aroma characteristic of apple brandy.
In European countries it’s not difficult to find brandies aged for just a few years to upwards of four to five decades. In the U.S., however, where brandy has long been overlooked in favor of whiskey, it’s rare to find an American brandy with age on it—particularly one distilled from apples. But this Oregon-made apple brandy follows in the tradition of French Calvados. Clear Creek Reserve Apple Brandy ages for a minimum of eight years in old and new French Limousin oak. The distillery also offers a two-year-old American apple brandy. Taste the two side by side to see how dramatically aging time affects the flavor and aroma of the same distillate.
This apple brandy from Santa Fe Spirits pays tribute to both the French Calvados tradition and American apple brandy history. It’s made from apples grown both in Colorado and at founder Colin Keegan’s home orchard in Tesuque, NM. The spirit is aged for at least 10 months in American oak before being bottled at a mellow 80 proof. The brandy is much more subtle than its high-proof counterparts, and is easily enjoyed on its own, or in simple cocktails like a lightly sweetened Old Fashioned.
Since 2015, this Reserve Apple Brandy has been released each year by California’s St. George Spirits. Despite limited quantities, it’s worth trying to get your hands on a bottle. This American apple brandy is made from a field blend of apples grown only 150 miles away from the distillery. Before being bottled at 43% ABV, it spends at least two years aging in French and American oak casks. Sometimes the barrels used include its B&E Bourbon and St. George Single Malt Whiskey casks. With plenty of the rich, comforting flavors you might find in an apple pie, you can’t go wrong pouring a dram over ice or using it in a Hot Toddy.