The category is far more varied than perhaps first meets the eye. There are clear, unaged versions that resemble eau de vie, and amber-hued apple brandies that spend years in oak barrels. Production methods include continuous column stills, copper pot stills and a type of freeze distillation called “jacking.”
The history of apple brandy is fascinating, too, stretching all the way from the 7th-century Silk Road to colonial New Jersey and beyond. Today, the nature of the spirit continues to evolve. In recent years, some U.S. craft distillers have bottled modern apple brandies, iterating on what some consider America’s oldest spirit.
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The History of Apple Brandy
“Any fruit with sufficient natural sugars may be fermented and distilled into brandy,” writes Matthew Rowley in The Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails. He traces the origins of brandies to Uighurs in 7th-century China. Rowley believes that Arab rosewater distillation techniques may have inspired Europeans to try their hands at making brandy from local fruits—including tart cider apples—in the Middle Ages.
But specific references to apple brandy are more recent, Rowley writes. He finds an early mention of Calvados, the apple brandy that hails from Normandy, France, at the start of the 19th century. Meanwhile, bätzi—an apple brandy from Switzerland—is at least a century old, estimates Astrid Gerz, the secretariat of the Swiss Culinary Heritage Association.
U.S. drinkers, however, might be most familiar with applejack, an American-born apple brandy that originated in the late 1600s. One early distiller was Scottish immigrant William Laird, who settled in Monmouth County, New Jersey, and began to produce his own applejack in 1698. Within about a century-and-a-half, the state was dotted in applejack distilleries.