Old spirit

Applejack is perfect for November and tells an intriguing tale to boot


Now is the time for applejack. It is the perfect liquor to ease you from fall into winter. With a strong punch, a hint of apple and a compelling story to boot, it’s worth the $20 investment to a buy a bottle, stoke a fire and think about George Washington.


Applejack is a spirit born out of the American colonies. The primitive process of making applejack involved fermenting apple cider, usually with sweet apples plucked in the fall, and freezing the fermented cider underground, then separating the resulting ice from the now highly alcohol-concentrated drink; a process called freeze distilling. If it sounds easy and appealing, think twice; you can get some real bogus liquor through this process so leave it to the colonists. Tastewise, it’s essentially apple brandy, and will taste similar to something like Calvados.

But the fascination about applejack exists because it was once the favorite drink of early Americans, and now you hardly see it.

Communities were making their jacked-up hooch for years before “mass” production of applejack started in New Jersey with Laird’s Applejack Company — the country’s first distillery. One of the earliest Lairds, who came from Scotland in 1698, started selling their applejack at their family-run Colts Neck Inn to travelers. In 1760, George Washington wrote to the Lairds for the recipe, and an entry in the future president’s journal includes the recipe for “cyder spirits.”

In 1780, Robert Laird (who served in the Revolutionary War under Washington) officially founded the applejack distillery on behalf of his family. Johnny Appleseed also planted apple tree saplings designed to produce fruit not for eating, but for making applejack in the Ohio Valley, ahead of westward expansion, according to the drink encyclopedia, Alcohol in Popular Culture by Rachel Black.

Despite moving a number of times throughout the Garden State, Laird’s Applejack is still available today, and it’s just about the only distiller that makes the spirit. It lost its appeal pretty quickly as the now-quintessential American spirits, rye and Bourbon whiskey took hold. It then hung on for dear life in the 20th century, slanderized with the nickname “Jersey Lightning,” which now actually sounds pretty cool.

Now, 300 years later you can pick up a bottle of Laird’s Applejack in Boulder — though the apples used are grown and distilled in Virginia, the company still has several business locations in New Jersey.

Given the illustrious history of America’s oldest spirit, it’s worth a try even if hard liquor isn’t your thing. And to be honest, applejack is a bit like drinking moonshine with a splash of apple juice. It’s potency and relative sweetness was actually the main reason why it was so valued in the colonial world — they valued the bang for their buck just like we do today.

But if sipping it doesn’t work, you can whip up a couple cocktails with the spirit. None is more common than the Jack Rose, a mix of applejack, lemon juice, grenadine and an optional splash of egg white for consistency. The acidic lemon juice and sweet grenadine balance the applejack for a really nice November sipper.

You can also replace the whiskeys in the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan with applejack for a sweeter, harder taste. Or you can do what George Washington did: chugged a bottle, crossed the Delaware and won us a country. So thanks, applejack, and thanks, New Jersey, for saving our country.