While the American colonists drank hard cider like their modern-day counterparts swill Pepsi and Coca-Cola, for some, cider’s relatively mild 4 to 6 percent alcohol concentration just wasn’t alcoholic enough. The solution to this pressing pioneer problem was applejack.
Cider, circa 1775, was routinely transmogrified into the stunningly stronger applejack simply by setting a pan of it on the back porch in the frigid days of winter. The water in the cider would freeze, and as ice was removed from the cider container, the alcohol in the brew became increasingly concentrated. This process of freeze-distilling, which relies on the fact that alcohol freezes at a lower temperature than water, was known as jacking—hence the cozy name applejack.
Cider, converted to applejack, shrank to as little as one-tenth of its original volume, and could reach 65 proof–that is, over 30 percent alcohol. Drunk in quantity, it packed a powerful punch. A common nickname for applejack was “essence of lockjaw,” and over-indulgence in it led to a wobbly condition known as apple palsy,doubtless followed by a splitting headache. “…The victim of applejack,” claimed The New York Times on April 10, 1894, “is capable of blowing up a whole town with dynamite and of reciting original poetry to every surviving inhabitant.”
By 1780, applejack had gone professional, most famously from the distillery of Laird & Company, still in business today and the producer of the bulk of America’s applejack. The original Laird (William) arrived in Monmouth County, New Jersey, in 1698, and soon thereafter began producing a more refined version of applejack, an apple brandy aged in oak kegs. One story holds that he was doing his best to come up with a decent substitute for Scotch whiskey. (The traditional rye for this drink didn’t grow too well in the Colonies. See The Highs and Lows of Hard Apple Cider History.)
Laird seems to have succeeded. By 1760, George Washington—who had substantial apple orchards at Mount Vernon—was asking the current Laird for his recipe. Even refined, it was known as “Jersey Lightning.”
There were soon dozens of distilleries churning out apple brandy—nearly 400 of them were up and running by the 1830s. Abe Lincoln, during his brief stint as a tavern keeper in New Salem, Illinois, sold applejack to his customers at a cost of 12 cents a pint—cheaper than wine, gin, French brandy, whiskey, or rum, which may have ensured its popularity. (A night’s lodging, in comparison, cost 12.5 cents, and dinner cost a quarter.)
People drank it straight or, occasionally, as scotchem, a body-temperature-boosting blend of applejack, hot water, and a dollop of ground mustard. Luckily, one disillusioned modern taster pointed out, “there is little need of it in a century blessed by central heating, polar fleece, and microwave soup bowls.”
Unlike its milder sister, however—a victim first of Prohibition, then of a public preference for beer—applejack seems never to have gone out of style. In October, 1933, anticipating the repeal of the Volstead Act, Laird & Company announced that they were preparing to produce one million gallons of apple brandy. (This was intended, they added cautiously, for medicinal purposes.)
Today, applejack is featured in any number of spiffy cocktails. For example, there’s the Jack Rose, downed by Jake Barnes at the Hotel Crillon in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises; and the Widow’s Kiss—touted as one of the best names in cocktail history—believed to have been first described by bartender George Kappeler in Modern American Drinks, published in 1895. And, as it turns out, modern cocktail partyers are still drinking Ethan Allen’s Stone Wall, an intimidating mix of hard cider and rum, said to have been a favorite of the Green Mountain Boys. Now known delicately as the StoneFence, a version has been popular at the White House.
October is National Applejack Month, so celebrate! Here are a few classic recipes to get you started:
2 ounces applejack
1 ounce lime juice
½ ounce grenadine
Shake well with cracked ice, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
1 ½ ounces applejack
¾ ounce yellow Chartreuse
¾ ounce Benedictine
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
1 ounce applejack
1 ounce dark rum
To a tall glass containing 1-2 ice cubes, add applejack and rum, then fill with hard cider.