Colonial America was a very thirsty place. Slaking that thirst could be challenging: Early vineyards failed, as did the first plantings of hops and barley, and wines and brandies from Europe were prohibitively expensive for the average colonist.
Fortunately, there were apples.
Apple cultivation started in America as early as 1630, and a well-tended orchard was a necessity for a successful homestead. Most apples were used to make hard cider, but many drinkers wanted something with a little more oomph; the result was a spirit called applejack. Innovative drinkers learned that cider’s strength could be boosted by leaving it outside on a frosty night, then separating the remaining liquid from the ice the next morning. This residue was highly alcoholic, and about as nuanced in effect as a collision with a stone wall (perhaps not coincidentally, a popular drink was the Stone Fence, made of hard cider spiked with a harder spirit). This rough liquor was also high in impurities—some referred to it as “essence of lockjaw”—and promised a skull-splitting headache for the foolhardy drinker.
In 1698, a Scottish distiller named William Laird settled in New Jersey and began to produce a more refined applejack, a pure apple brandy aged in oak, with the flavor of a rich, fruity whiskey. Small farm stillhouses soon sprang up, and by the 1830s nearly 400 distilleries were producing New Jersey’s homegrown spirit.
“Jersey Lightning”—as it was also called—was immensely popular in the mid-Atlantic region. George Washington is recorded as having requested an applejack recipe from the Laird family in 1760, and during the Revolutionary War, troops under Washington’s command drank it while campaigning in New Jersey. In 1780 the Lairds established the country’s first commercial brandy distillery, and in the years that followed taverns and inns did a brisk business in applejack, serving it straight or in warmers such as scotchem—a mixture of applejack and boiling water, flavored with a dollop of mustard.
Future generations of bartenders found more palatable uses for applejack. The spirit’s most prominent use is in the Jack Rose—a cocktail made from applejack, lemon or lime juice and grenadine—but it also enjoyed renown in drinks such as the Manhattan-like Marconi Wireless, the almond-scented Supreme (see recipe, right) and the maple-accented Applejack Rabbit. Now in its 10th generation of applejack production, the Laird family has been the only commercial producer of applejack since the 1950s, selling its eponymous spirit nationwide and in the United Kingdom, while also marketing Captain Applejack in Virginia and North Carolina. Urban sprawl long ago displaced New Jersey’s orchards, so today’s applejack is made from apples grown in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Laird’s modern recipe blends apple brandy with neutral grain spirits and a touch of apple wine, which gives the applejack a lighter taste.
Demand for applejack declined in the 1960s, but the company is seeing a renewed interest among mixologists, such as Misty Kalkofen, bar manager at Green Street in Cambridge, Mass. “Applejack is really versatile,” she says. “It’s an apple brandy, but when blended with neutral spirits it acts more like a whiskey, so you can do a lot of things with it.”
Applejack’s versatility can also be seen in cocktails that use small amounts of applejack for flavor, such as the rye whiskey-based Diamondback and the gin-based Pink Lady. Kalkofen says this versatility, matched with applejack’s engaging history, is winning the venerable spirit new fans. “People are starting to appreciate the history of the cocktail in American culture,” she says. “When you tell them that applejack is from the first licensed distillery in the United States, and that the Laird family is mentioned in Washington’s journals, that intrigues people and gets them interested.”