LAUREN CARTER (this article was published November 2012)
From the moment that settlers first laid foot on what was to become the United States, the apple played a major role in daily life. It has been revered as a democratic fruit and a symbol of the diversity of American culture. In 1905 the Nomenclature of the Apple, a government publication, listed 17,000 apple varieties. With the presidential election today, it seems particularly relevant to talk about two beverages oft partaken by our forefathers, hard apple cider and applejack. Nowadays, few people have even heard of applejack; however, the first distillery in the U.S. was an applejack distillery, and apple cider was the drink of choice for Americans up until Prohibition.
So, what happened? Why has such a staple of American society fallen out of favor, and how do we bring it back?
You might be wondering what exactly applejack is. To start off, I’d like to say that it has nothing to do with the cereal. The term jacking actually refers to the method of freeze distillation that is used to concentrate alcohol and remove undesired impurities. It is as simple as freezing a bottle of hard apple cider and skimming off the frozen chunks the following day. Since alcohol doesn’t freeze, this type of distillation allows the easy removal of non-alcoholic portions of the fermented cider. After repeating this process several times, you have a very concentrated alcohol that is kind of like the apple brandy version of moonshine. Colonists often made applejack by freezing an entire barrel of applejack outdoors during the winter. The alcoholic center of the barrel remained liquid while the outermost areas of cider froze. Colonists would drill into the barrel and “tap the heart” of it.
It is hard to talk about applejack without first mentioning hard cider and the history of the apple tree itself in the U.S. Most plants can be bred for certain desirable traits. For instance, a rose can be bred to produce more petals or a sweeter scent. The seeds of a rose bush and other similar plants contain genetic information that will be replicated in future generations. On the other hand, the seeds of an apple will grow trees that in no way resemble their parent trees. Instead, most of the seeds of an apple will be sour crab apples that people don’t like to eat. Throughout history, the finding of a good tasting apple such as the Jonathon, McIntosh, or Golden Delicious was a fluke. Finding a palatable apple tree was kind of like winning the lottery. The young boy who found the original Golden Delicious tree on his family’s property sold it for close to $100,000 in the early 1900s.
The only way to grow a new Golden Delicious tree is to graft the parent tree. Grafting is the process of inserting a section of a desirable apple tree into the stock of an undesirable apple tree. You can’t grow a new Golden Delicious apple tree from seed. Every Golden Delicious tree is a piece of the original parent tree first named in the late 1800s. A Golden Delicious grown in 2012 is a part of the direct lineage to that Golden Delicious of yesteryear. Most of the first settlers in the U.S. were too poor to travel with grafted trees in tow. The orchards that existed throughout the American landscape during the colonial era were grown from seed. The apples from these trees, being unfit to eat, were used to make apple cider.
By 1670 almost every farm in the U.S. had an apple orchard filled with crab apples used to make homemade apple cider. In his book The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan discusses the apple’s history on the American frontier. “Virtually every homestead in America had an orchard from which literally thousands of gallons of cider were made every year,” Pollan writes. “In rural areas, cider took the place not only of wine and beer but of coffee and tea, juice, and even water, even by children, since it was arguably the healthier – because more sanitary – beverage.” Because the New England climate and soil were inhospitable to grapes, rye, barley, and corn, colonists turned to apples as their main source of raw material for alcohol. Cider was also easier to produce than grain alcohols like beer and whiskey because it doesn’t require heating.
- Illustration 40, apple cultivar Orléans-Reinette, from Deutsche Pomologie – Aepfel; Wilhelm Lauche; 1882-1883; via Wikimedia Commons
The process of making hard apple cider in the American colonies was simple. The manually operated basket press, used for wine making since the middle ages, enabled colonists to press their own apples at home. Once the juice was extracted from the apples, it was only a matter of time before yeast found its way to the sugary liquid and transformed it into alcohol. In fact, the term “hard apple cider” is redundant because non-alcoholic apple cider wasn’t possible until refrigeration was invented. Up until that point, all apple cider was alcoholic. A few decades after colonists first started making apple cider, they began making applejack.
Even George Washington made applejack! He had been making hard cider for years, and around 1760 he wrote to the Laird family, owners of the first applejack distillery, requesting their recipe. Robert Laird, the great grandson of the founder of Laird’s applejack, served under George Washington during the Revolutionary War, and it is well known that Washington’s troops regularly drank applejack during their New Jersey campaign. If you’d like to try Laird’s recipe (granted, it has changed over the years) you can pick up a bottle at many liquor stores around the country. Laird’s is actually the only pre-Prohibition applejack distillery that is still in operation today.
Thomas Jefferson, our third president and an avid pomologist, claimed the Taliaferro to be his favorite apple for making hard cider. In reference to the Taliaferro he wrote, “the best cyder apple existing . . . nearer to the silky Champagne than any other.”
And now to pay homage to William Henry Harrison, our ninth president who was unfortunately in office for only a month and a half. He ran for office on a campaign nicknamed the “log cabin and hard cider campaign.” Harrison’s supporters would carry miniature log cabins and drink hard cider at his rallies in support of their candidate’s down-to-earth way of life. Harrison is purported to have served good ol’ American cider at his dinner table rather than wine imported from Europe. Sound familiar? Even today, presidential candidates are wont to flaunt their American pride. Well, Harrison’s taste for apple cider will be forever honored by the cocktail “General Harrison’s Eggnog”, featured in one of the first great compendiums of cocktail recipes by Jerry Thomas. (How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant’s Companion). A good alternative to the traditional eggnog, this one uses hard cider instead of bourbon.
At this point in time, the crab apple orchards of our nation’s youth are no longer. Angry prohibitionists decimated most of the orchards hoping to end alcohol consumption in the U.S. After Prohibition was repealed, the orchards never quite recovered. Most of the orchards in existence today are filled with eating apples, and the U.S. hard cider and applejack industries are only now beginning to see a rebirth.
In the spirit of Election Day, let’s all make some apple-inspired cocktails. It’s our duty to revive this piece of American history and raise the crab apple to its forgotten glory. After all, Abraham Lincoln used to sell applejack at his Springfield, Illinois tavern for twelve cents a half-pint.
So, how do you find applejack? Laird’s Applejack, which dates back to the 1600’s, is still the most popular applejack brand. Up until a few years ago, it was the only distillery still making applejack. Currently, the cocktail revolution has helped to insight more craft distilleries to start producing applejack. One notable brand is Harvest Spirits, the New York distillery making Cornelius Applejack.
And here are the recipes for two classic cocktails, the Jack Rose and General Harrison’s Eggnog. Enjoy!
- 2 oz. applejack
- 1 oz. lemon or lime juice
- ½ oz. grenadine
Homemade grenadine is wonderful and easy to make, so let’s start with that. Just put equal amounts pomegranate juice and sugar in an airtight container and shake until the sugar is completely dissolved. Voila! Grenadine!
Now, pour all ingredients into a cocktail shaker, add ice, and shake. Strain into your favorite cocktail glass.
General Harrison’s Eggnog
- 1 egg
- 1 ½ tsp. sugar
- 8 oz. hard apple cider
- pinch of nutmeg
Pour all ingredients into a cocktail shaker, add ice, and shake. Strain into a cocktail glass and top with a bit of ground nutmeg.