Spirits: The taste of apples, distilled

Deb Lindsey/For the Washington Post - Modernized scotchem, based on an old applejack drink from Colonial times.

A decade or so back, after gorging ourselves on Thanksgiving dinner, my extended family — gathered at my uncle’s place in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains — bundled up for a walk, determined to burn off a hundredth of what we’d eaten. His house outside Crozet, Va., is surrounded by orchards, and we walked the railroad tracks, past fields abuzz with wasps and heavy with the cidery scent of fruit browning and boozy under the trees.

There’s something primal and piercing about the smell of apples, redolent of the past, suggestive of coming winter. I found myself growing sentimental — all of us there, together, in the cold air and autumn light — when we began to hear baying, distant but closing in.

VIENNA, VA, JANUARY 9, 2013: Winter salad of shaved cucumber, radish and endive with lemon vinaigrette. Dishware courtesy of Crate & Barrel. (Photo by ASTRID RIECKEN For The Washington Post)

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Soon, galumphing through the trees, came a pack of the most hillbilly-looking beagles I’d ever seen, walleyed and bent of tail. Had I been casting the canine remake of “Deliverance,” my work would have been done. Their blundering, aggressive clumsiness and sporadic lunging chomps at the fruit fermenting beneath the trees convinced me: These beagles weren’t just feral. These beagles were drunk.

The dogs (I should really call them “dawgs” for accuracy) were partaking in a long tradition of apple-boozing. In the Colonial era, the vast majority of apples ended up not in pies, but in drinks. Long before Americans trusted water — rank stuff, filled with dysentery and typhoid — they trusted apples; a mildly alcoholic cider was not as welcoming to germs. Cider came first, but then came “cyder spirits,” liquor produced by freezing hard cider and removing the ice, thereby increasing the alcohol content.

Now better known as applejack (often nicknamed “Jersey lightning”), the vast majority is still made by New Jersey’s Laird & Co., around since the 1700s. George Washington liked the booze enough to ask Robert Laird, then a soldier in his command, for the recipe. Laird went on, in 1780, to license America’s very first distillery, in Scobeyville.

Company Vice President Lisa Laird Dunn says she’s proud to be the ninth generation of her family involved in the business. Though it once had three distilleries, Laird’s is down to one, located in North Garden, Va., outside Charlottesville. Virginia apples now power Jersey’s lightning. Though the applejack is aged and blended in New Jersey, “we haven’t distilled in Jersey since the ’70s,” says Laird Dunn. Most of that state’s old orchards have been lost to development.

While applejack has a whiff of apple on the nose, on the palate it’s more like a faintly apple-y whiskey: understandable, since it’s only 35 percent apples, 65 percent neutral spirits. Laird’s brandies, 100 percent apple, have more fruit on the palate. Like the French apple brandy Calvados, though, they’re pricier, so you may be loath to dilute their delicate flavor in cocktails.

Happily, you don’t have to: You can get your cocktail apples in spirits or ciders, but “If I’m looking for apple flavor, I’m going straight for the fruit,” says Owen Thomson, self-described “shaker monkey” at Range. Thomson roasts Gala apples for his Mexican Warhead, a smoky blend of apples, mezcal, apricot liqueur and a house-made strawberry vinegar. The Galas, Thomson says, work for the drink because they have a nice acid that survives the roasting process.

At Jack Rose Dining Saloon — named for the most famous of apple-based cocktails — bartender Trevor Frye swerves into Laird’s brandies for the Harvest Moon, which pairs apple brandy with rye, simple syrup, lemon and egg white for a tart, frothy, apple-y drink. The bar uses a house-made apple butter in another drink.

Frye says he likes working with applejack for the history, for getting those “old, Prohibition-era tastes into a drink.” The hot apple drinks perfect for fall and winter are drinks you want to sip, but also hold in your hands for warmth. “They make me feel like being back at my grandparents’,” he says. “There’s always a nostalgia factor.”

With so much of the history of apples suggesting a dreamy view of the past, remember that not everything is worth preserving. Few apple drinks seem to better embody the “let the past die” argument than a hot toddy variation called scotchem: applejack, boiling water and mustard powder. “This concoction . . . brought tears to the eyes of the drinker, tears that had naught to do with grief,” William McMahon writes in “Pine Barrens Legends & Lore.”

As the years have passed, my family hasn’t been going down to Crozet for Thanksgiving. It seems harder and harder to connect with distant relatives, and though there are still orchards in the area, the drive to my uncle’s place down winding Route 250 is increasingly bracketed not by apple trees but by crabgrass and McMansions. The spindly saplings in their perfectly mowed yards are the sort that bigger trees would bully and stuff into lockers. So I’m thankful for drinks that call to mind the cidered air of that remembered place, the time spent with family, the weird boozy beagles of that orchard.

Most of all, though, I’m thankful not to have to drink the original version of scotchem.

Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor; her Spirits column appears monthly. On Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.

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