Rachel Cole Gardner was working on her grandmother's farm in Upstate New York when she noticed some gangly apple trees around the property, trees that hadn't been pruned in years, adorned with tiny green bulbs.
Curious, she tasted a few. "They were very bitter, very tart — blech! — but I ended up pulling down 10 to 15 pounds of them and bringing them back here," says Gardner, co-founder of Republic Restoratives distillery in the District.
The apples sat in the distillery refrigerator until a bartender pushed them to the head of Gardner's to-do list by juicing them. Gardner added yeast and let the brew sit for a couple of months before distilling it into brandy. "The whole space filled with this apple-y smell," she says. "It made our space feel homey and really made us feel more connected to what we'd made."
That smell of apples conjures home for lots of Americans, which is funny, when you think about it. Few cliches have stumbled onto deeper truths like "American as apple pie," which centers our national identity on fruit that originated in Asia and pastry traditions from Europe. Apple and other brandies were a large component of early American drinking. Distilled from grapes, apples or other fruits (as opposed to grain or sugar cane), they came from distilling traditions that settlers brought with them.
In the past few decades, those old roots have started producing new fruit.
Until quite recently, most domestic brandies — both the grape-based standard and those from other fruits — have languished in the elegant shadow of such European forebears as cognac and Calvados. That image of sophisticated sipping even crept into hip-hop, with Ice Cube sippin' on Courvoisier and Jay-Z praising Remy on the rocks; millions heard Tupac Shakur's posthumous profession of loyalty to Hennessy. The titans of rap have long been directing people to brandy, every drop of it French. French brandy had quality and cachet, whereas domestic brandies were thought of (sometimes justly) as cheap, adulterated and sweet — far removed from the complexity of their European ancestors.
But American brandy had an earlier act. Made from the fruits that grew well in their regions, brandy had a big role in our drinking and cocktail culture (the earliest known was being distilled in New York in 1640) before Prohibition came along and wiped it off the map.
Among apple brandy makers, only Laird & Company of New Jersey survived, diverting into legal apple products during Prohibition. Brandy production never fully rebounded: Post-Prohibition, the East Coast had Laird's again, and the West Coast had some grape brandies, but there "was not much in between, as fruit brandies quickly became mass-produced products using grain neutral spirits with fruit flavoring additives," wrote Michael Veach and Renae Price in a history of American brandy commissioned by Copper & Kings distillery.
In the 1980s, a handful of craft distillers out West — St. George Spirits, Germain-Robin, Clear Creek, Osocalis — began making forays into quality fruit brandy, many of them hewing close to European traditions.
As the cocktail movement gained steam through the early 2000s, interest in craft spirits and in those older distilling traditions increased. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, brandy sales have gone up 35 percent since 2002. Small distillers scattered around the country have started dabbling in brandy, incorporating fruits that reflect their region's farms.
Among other things, it's a way to stand out. Like many start-up booze makers, Watershed Distillery — in Ohio, the heart of apple country — started out making vodka, gin and bourbon, but then began looking to differentiate itself, first with a black walnut liqueur and most recently with apple brandy.
"The longer we were in the industry," owner and distiller Greg Lehman says, "the more we thought we needed to explore the niches: What are the big guys not doing?"
If you're new to brandy, you might not know what to expect. The first time I tried an apple brandy, I expected sweet cider sharpened to a boozy slap, and was annoyed to find that it tasted much like whiskey. (This was in college, when I drank Fuzzy Navels; evaluate my opinions of that era accordingly.) In unaged eau de vies, the base fruit is often more perceptible, but the longer a spirit stays in barrels, the more the wood shapes its flavor. And unless they're adulterated post-distillation, most fruit brandies aren't particularly sweet; don't buy one expecting a fruit-flavored liqueur.
That said, American brandies are all over the map. The famed, named brandies of Europe are governed by centuries of rules and traditions for where, how and from what they may be made (you can't make a "cognac" if you're not doing it in Cognac), but American brandies don't labor under such restrictions. While many domestic producers love European brandies, they're not all looking to mimic them, and they're largely free to choose which traditions to explore and which to ignore.
Leading the charge on the "ignore" (or at least "disrupt") front is Copper & Kings, which was founded in Louisville, the heart of bourbon country, in 2014 and now has several highly praised brandies on the market.
"I'd hate to say that American brandy is constrained by the dogma of one style," says founder Joe Heron, a South African entrepreneur who with his wife previously launched and sold Crispin cider. "We're a nation of experimenters and pioneers."
Heron thought there was room for something new to slide in among mass-market American brandies, the high-quality West Coast spirits he describes as "American-style cognac" and the pricey European imports. For Copper & Kings, that sweet spot has been in developing brandies notable for their intensity — for being, as Heron describes them, "more about the barrel than the fruit." Their reference points are more toward bourbon than cognac, "more about the heft and swagger of an American personality."
Republic Restoratives' new Chapman's apple brandy represents almost the opposite end of the spectrum, emphasizing the base fruit. Before distillation, the cider is rested on the lees, the dead yeast deposits left after fermentation, which impart great flavors. "The longer you let something rest on the lees, the more apple you should be retaining," Gardner explains. "Additionally, we found if we distilled with the lees, it reactivated a lot of those flavors and created an even more bright, apples distillate."
"What was coming off the still was mind-blowingly good," co-founder Pia Carusone says, "so we were so careful to make sure it wasn't overwooded." They aged it briefly in rye whiskey barrels and French oak that previously held chardonnay and the distillery's first bourbon, tasting it regularly. The end result is a delicate, almost buttery spirit that provides a clear flash of tart fruit and notes reminiscent of a yeasty chardonnay.
There are so many new bottles to explore, and enthusiasts are waiting to see what happens next in the brandy category. The spirit's growth has reminded some of the path of rye whiskey, another domestic spirit that all but vanished after Prohibition but has recently experienced a resurgence. "I think brandy is on the cusp of having its moment," Heron says. "The new drinkers of brandy are younger, adventurous, not that entrenched and looking for interesting things. The growth is already substantial — and I think it's about to blow up big time."
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.
MAKE AHEAD: The spiced butter can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.
Chai tea is available at most grocery stores. Apple brandies are becoming more widely available; Laird's is the most well known, but we found multiple brands at liquor stores around the Washington area.
From Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan.
For the drink
8 cups water
8 chai tea bags
1½ cups apple brandy (see headnote)
For the spiced butter
4 ounces salted butter, preferably European style or high-fat, at a cool room temperature
1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest (from 1 large navel orange)
½ cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon Angostura bitters
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
For the drink: Bring the water to a full boil in a large saucepan over high heat, then remove from the heat and add the tea bags. Steep for 4 to 6 minutes, then discard the tea bags. Add the apple brandy; return the saucepan to the stove top, over low heat.
For the spiced butter: Whisk together the softened butter, orange zest, brown sugar, bitters and vanilla extract in mixing bowl, until thoroughly incorporated. The yield is about ¾ cup. Cover and refrigerate if not using within a few hours.
When you are ready to serve, ladle the hot tea and brandy mixture into a heatproof mug. Top with a heaping teaspoon of the spiced butter, stirring vigorously until the spiced butter has created a layer of foam on top of the drink.
Divide among individual small mugs or short glasses; serve right away, with a spoon or swizzle stick so your guests may continue to stir the drink, as needed.