When it comes to apple brandy, the first country you think of might be France with its famed Calvados, but thanks to a crop of small distillers, the U.S. is now one of the most exciting producers of the historic spirit.
The first and most important thing to know about apple brandy is that it must be made from apples and nothing else. Typically, a blend of different apple varieties are mashed into juice, which is then fermented, distilled, aged (or not), and bottled. Some producers distill single-variety batches of apples instead of blending to create brandy that explores the nuance of a single apple type. Others mix a percentage of apple distillate with neutral grain spirits for a result that can't technically be called apple brandy—instead, it's known as applejack. Applejack generally has a thinner apple flavor, while the concentrated brandy has a richer, more complex personality.
Unlike its cousin Calvados, American apple brandy doesn't play by a strict set of rules. Calvados must be produced in the Normandy region of France and must be aged in oak casks for at least two years. For this reason, it's usually pretty heavy on the wood flavors. American producers, on the other hand, often favor a more natural approach, showcasing the fruit's inherent apple-ness instead. American apple brandy also typically comes in one of two forms—those aged in various kinds of barrels, and those that land on the fresh un-aged side of the spectrum typically called eau de vie.
Apple brandy and applejack have both been produced in the States since colonial times, when they were largely consumed in punch form. Now, apple brandy is finding new love behind American bars as bartenders find ways to incorporate the warming spirit into fall and winter concoctions. Some of the simplest applications take place in hot toddies, Old Fashioneds, or as an added alcoholic boost to mulled cider. Aged apple brandies can also be rich, supple and well rounded enough to drink straight, like a fine Cognac or Scotch.
Which American-made apple brandies are worth seeking out? Stick with these 8 favorites.
St. George California Reserve Apple Brandy
The newest product from the renowned California distillery is one of the best examples of a fruit brandy that truly captures the essence of its raw materials. Blossoming with flavors of baked apple, hints of honey and caramel, with a dry walnut-like finish, the California Reserve Apple Brandy ($60 for 750mL) is the aged version of an apple brandy that St. George produced exclusively for NYC restaurant Eleven Madison Park for the past two years. The Reserve—made from a field blend of 16 types of Northern California apples that's rested for two and a half years in French and American oak barrels—will be the first version available to the public, and will hit shelves in mid-October. It's got a bit of a crisp bite on the swallow, but overall, it's flush with warm spiced apple flavors and balanced enough to simply sip neat.
Clear Creek Eau de Vie Pomme
Arguably the most critically acclaimed apple brandy in our lineup, the Clear Creek Eau de Vie Pomme ($44.95 for 750mL) has an ideal balance between woody oak flavors and fresh, sweet apples. The Portland-based distillery takes a unique approach to the spirit, using 100% Golden Delicious apples for each batch instead of blending multiple varieties together as most others do. The final brandy is aged for a minimum of eight years in Cognac barrels before hitting the bottle. We like the dialed-in focus; fresh grass and brown sugar-like sweetness mingle with slight hints of cinnamon in perfect harmony. This spirit is great for cocktails and sipping alike.
Koval Apple Brandy
Made from a blend of delicate Gala, Braeburn, and Pink Lady apples, Koval Distillery's Apple Brandy ($30-35 for 375mL) is a departure from more aged versions, opting instead for a soft, clean personality. The Chicago-based company sources their crop from Washington and mashes at the distillery. Aged for a modest 6 months in American oak barrels, the brandy captures a green, almost piney apple flavor with hints of citrus and a full-bodied, creamy texture, ideal for drinking on ice or in a cocktail with other subtle ingredients so as to not overpower the elegant profile.
Germain Robin Apple Brandy XO
If you're looking for a luxurious gift, consider Germain Robin's Apple Brandy XO ($95 for 750mL). It's a blend of various vintage distillates from 1991 and onwards. Made from Black Twig, Ribston, Pippin, and Wickson apples distilled and aged in French Limousin oak, the XO is a sophisticated, complex, and exciting apple brandy that we wager could stand up to the classiest of Calvados. Rich Port-like dark berry flavors intertwine with intermittent moments of fresh apple and mature wood; with such depth and intrigue, this one is definitely served best in a proper brandy snifter for savoring.
Laird's Straight Apple Brandy
America's oldest apple brandy producer has been distilling applejack and apple brandy since 1780. Today, they have three brandies on the market, including a 7 1/2 year, a 12 year, and a 100 proof Straight Apple Brandy ($29.99 for 750mL). We liked the spicy rye-like profile of the Straight version the best; it's made with a blend of up to eight kinds of apples, including Red Delicious and Golden Delicious, and aged in used bourbon barrels for a minimum of four years. Fragrant orange overtones play with underlying baked apple cloaked in a veil of vanilla. Wisps of nutmeg and allspice round out the body that's surprisingly easy to sip neat despite its lofty proof. Because it does have an extra kick, Laird's Straight Apple Brandy is ideal for use as a substitute for applejack in cocktails like the Jack Rose.
Black Star Farms Spirit of Apple
Located in the fertile Grand Traverse Bay area of Northern Michigan, Black Star Farms Winery started distilling apples into brandy in 1999. The award-winning Spirit of Apple ($24.50 for 375mL) is a deep and complex spirit that focuses on fruit, not oak, made with a blend of apples that includes Winesap, Rhode Island Greening, Spy, McIntosh, Jonagold, and more. The brandy is aged for three to five years in both French and American oak, which imparts a light wood flavor that shies in the face of big crunchy green apple. A slight bitterness creeps in mid-palate, but softens and smoothes out into a warm, lingering vanilla finish.
Santa Fe Spirits Apple Brandy
New Mexico might not be the ideal climate for apple orchards, but that doesn't keep this distillery from making fantastic apple brandy. Using apples from owner Colin Keegan's orchard in Santa Fe, which are processed into juice and then blended with ciders shipped from Southern Colorado and other parts of New Mexico, the Apple Brandy ($45 for 750mL, $30 for 375mL), is an oak-laced homage to the classic Calvados brandies from France. It's medium-bodied with bursts of honey and allspice from the time spent in new American oak barrels, and a crisp closing bite from the use of Jonathan and Gala apples. Mix a few ounces in a hot toddy with a ribbon of honey to counteract the brandy's dryness.
Cedar Ridge Apple Brandy
This winery-turned-distillery in Iowa makes a variety of aged spirits, but for whiskey lovers looking to get into the apple brandy game, we favor the maturity of Cedar Ridge's apple brandy ($36.99 for 750mL). The distillery sources a proprietary blend of cider from a Wisconsin orchard to ferment and then distill, using a variety of apples that changes annually. The brandy distillate then sits in American oak for about three years, and finishes in French Limousin Oak for 6-12 months. Thanks to that heavy barrel influence, the final product isn't as bright as others, but rather has a thin layer of oily vanilla as the attention-grabbing first flavor, followed up with undertones of fresh apple, coconut, and hazelnut.
Note: Tasting samples provided for review consideration.