A favorite liquor of the Founding Fathers and a certain foolhardy underage drinker.

Laird & Company is America's first commercial distillery and the producer of most of its applejack
Laird & Company is America’s first commercial distillery and the producer of most of its applejack

Photograph courtesy Laird & Company © 2011.

The bite in the air and the crunch of the fallen leaves indicate that this is the season for applejack, the cider brandy traditionally described as “kinda like an apple whiskey.” Not remotely as sweet as a biddy’s schnapps, not quite so refined as a Frenchman’s Calvados, applejack boasts a forthright character and an identity as American as apple pie. Our forefathers drank cider like it was water, literally, their water being undrinkable, but some they set aside to make the hard stuff, as if concentrating the gaiety of the harvest festival to last through the hard months ahead. 

The liquor derives its name from an ancient method of its distillation—fractional freezing, or jacking, which involved leaving a barrel of hard cider out in the cold and periodically skimming off the ice. You could do this yourself on your fire escape. Please don’t. It may be as illegal as any other type of unlicensed distilling. More importantly, it can be as immoral as any other form of self-harm. An ambitious youth, I once made the worst bad decision in the history of Myrtle Beach, a South Carolina resort town that’s kind of like Atlantic City without the gambling, or the class. Just after graduating high school, during that ritual known as Beach Week, I found it appropriate to ingest some applejack whipped up by a friend who had done a bit of home-brewing under his father’s guidance and then gone rogue.

It is not often enough appreciated that the real problem with underage drinking isn’t that the kids don’t know when to stop drinking but that they can’t understand when not to start. I should have taken the cloudiness of the potion as a bad sign and regarded the particles of pulp suspended as ominous. I might have considered that I was helping myself to a libation that perhaps shared certain chemical properties with butane fuel and primitive antifreeze. But no. For the length of the following day, at dreadfully regular quarter-hour intervals, my soul rose up to punish my digestive tract. A quest for sustenance went no farther than a bedside cylinder of Pringles. Licking the salt and onion powder first from the convex side of each, then the concave, I very carefully restacked the saddle-shaped chips in a tower on the bedside table, constructing a moist monument to idiocy.

There can be no doubt that others have fared worse and that their shuddering accounts of shattering experiences have contributed to the decline of applejack’s popularity over the centuries. There must be a good reason that New Englanders once referred to this stuff as “essence of lockjaw” and that it was once amusing to note that “the victim of applejack is capable of blowing up a whole town with dynamite and of reciting original poetry to every surviving inhabitant.” But let’s all agree to put those traumas behind us. Unless your applejack mishap inspired you to get on the wagon, it is time to get back on the horse.

Placing your trust in professionals, you will likely turn to Laird & Company, of Scobeyville, N.J. America’s first commercial distillery and the producer of as much as 95 percent of its applejack, the firm is perennially proud to say that it once lent its recipe to George Washington. It is easiest to come by a bottle of Regular Laird’s, which is 35 percent apple brandy, 65 percent neutral spirits, 80 proof, and best fit for making a reduction sauce for your pork chops. You’d be better off with Laird’s Straight Bonded, which is 100 percent brandy and 100 proof. Its advantage isn’t its strength, though there is that, but rather its depth. There is a mouthful of golden flavor in each jigger. Pouring this jigger into your shaker, you are preparing to invent a liquid fruit undreamed by the Creator. Our test kitchen has determined that the apple cart, a variant on the sidecar, is a succulent marvel of tartness; that the applejack rabbit hops to the tongue with great tang; and that the crisp Harvard cooler is one of the few Ivy League cocktails that does not suck worse than Columbia football.

Tread gently into this particular corner of the cocktailian past. The antiquity of applejack ensures that some drinks mixed with it are perfectly antiquated. Take scotchem, which, as described in an old tavern tale, is made with applejack, hot water, and “a good dash of ground mustard.” I endeavored to try one of these in sympathetic circumstances, on the evening of an unseasonably early snowfall. There was meanness in the wind and moisture in my socks as I bolted home from the store with a box of Colman’s. Drinking my scotchem, I felt as if I’d curried my own thorax. There is little need of it in a century blessed by central heating, polar fleece, and microwave soup bowls.

Tread gently. Stay flexible. The origins of very many classic cocktails are matters of frantic dispute. There are perhaps a dozen stories about the invention of the margarita, most having to do with the barkeep’s attempts to honor and/or hump a woman named Margarita or Margaret or Marjorie. But applejack cocktails tend to have especially murky histories.

For instance, opinions are divided on whether the stone fence—a spiked cider currently popular in the White House—earned its name because it will inspire you to try vaulting one or to believe that you have barreled downhill into the same. An old issue of the trade magazine American Bottler confuses the issue further by suggesting (in antique orthography) that “once properly prepared, [the drink’s] hardness is only paralleled by a pile of granite bowlders.”

For instance, the conjunction of applejack and sweet vermouth is sometimes known as an Applejack Manhattan and sometimes as an applejack cocktail and sometimes as a Jersey lightning or a Marconi wireless or a star cocktail, depending on who’s doing the knowing and his sense of proportion. (This is one of those occasions where pretending to know will likely suffice. As long as the drink is cold, it should earn the appreciation of a neophyte and the cautious approval from all but the most curmudgeonly experts.)

For instance, there are those who would have you believe that the most famous applejack cocktail, the Jack Rose, owes its name to a gangster or to a Jersey City bartender or to a flower. It would be wise, perhaps, to suppose that the jack is for applejack and the rose is for its color when made with mass-produced grenadine. It would be wiser yet not to care and instead to devote your energies to discovering which of the innumerable recipes for the drink best suits your sweet tooth or your taste for piquancy. 

The trick is in figuring out the most agreeable ratio of applejack to lemon (or lime) juice to homemade grenadine. Don’t be daunted by this third ingredient, which is easily concocted by picking up superfine sugar from the grocery store, swiping your wife’s pomegranate juice from the fridge, and mixing them in equal parts. If your wife gets on your case about the pomegranate, it might or might not be productive to observe that her juice is pricier than your booze, ounce for ounce. If your wife has used all of your lemons to bleach her sneakers or to discipline the dog, then bear in mind that you can old-fashionedize your Jack Rose—outmode it, you might say—by using a dollop of grenadine, a few dashes of bitters, and a slug of applejack to create a firm and plummy number.

That covers the Jack Rose. Or it would if I weren’t obliged, according to tacit rules of pseudo-literary drinks scholarship, to mention that Jake Barnes drinks these in The Sun Also Rises. I will add that the greater challenge in this field of endeavor is to discover a major cocktail that does not appear in the oeuvre of this most ecumenical of literary alcoholics. If Papa were still around, his matadors would be drinking vodka and Red Bull.