Applejack: A Fine Liquor for Winter Drinking Provided It Doesn’t Incite You to Violence

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Dec. 7 2011 7:17 AM

Applejack

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. 

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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.

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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.

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