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Meanderer

Distilled Apples

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I've noticed a slow but steady growth in small scale, artisanal apple brandy producers in the U.S. but I have yet to come across any of their products on the shelves of my local liquor stores. Has anybody had any experience with any locally produced apple brandies and, if so, are any of them on a par with or better than comparably priced Calvados imported to the states? I'll be in the vicinity of two small distilleries in the northeast in a few weeks and I hope to judge for myself.

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I have a bottle of applejack made in West Virginia by the Forks of Cheat Distillery. It's nowhere near the quality of Laird's. It's very funky and, frankly, not all that good. I suspect it's not aged for very long. When used in standard recipes, the result is not what you'd be expecting. I'll work my way through eventually, though. It's not bad enough to just dump.


Mike

"The mixing of whiskey, bitters, and sugar represents a turning point, as decisive for American drinking habits as the discovery of three-point perspective was for Renaissance painting." -- William Grimes

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Well... the Forks of Cheat "Apple Jack" apple brandy is 80 proof and only aged 2 years. Laird's bonded applejack is 100 proof and aged something like 6 to 8 years (believe it or not, they sometimes put older apple brandy in the bottle than the age statement).

My impression is that I'm not aware of too many American producers that are making old school American-style apple brandy (which is to say, in the "whiskey-like" tradition as exemplified by Laird's). Rather, most of them seem to be making either eaux de vie or vaguely European-style apple brandy. And, in my opinion, the European-style American apple brandies don't compare all that well to Calvados. They don't tend to have the suaveness you're looking for in the European style, and yet they don't have that intensity of flavor and bite of a real applejack. And, at the same time, they tend to be pretty expensive. The other thing I notice is that most of the new producers of apple brandy tend to have started out distilling eaux de vie, and they don't tend to use charred oak barrels for aging. I wonder if it's possible that their distillation process is too careful and "clean" -- as it would have to be for the eaux de vie they're used to making -- and then not aged in a particularly character-enhancing way given the raw distillate. Personally, I'd rather see a dirtier (and hopefully therefore less expensive) distillation followed by longer aging in charred barrels. Why try to beat the French at their game when we have our own tradition?


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Flag Hill Farm makes an apple eau de vie and Sweetgrass Farm's apple brandy is aged only 13 months.


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I wonder what kind of stills the US apple brandy makers are using? The better Calvados is from a pot still.

Also all Calvados contains some amount of pear brandy. So add in those two factors and I think it accounts for the big differences Calvados and our apple brandy.


Edited by Bfishback (log)

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I wonder what kind of stills the US apple brandy makers are using? The better Calvados is from a pot still.

I've always been given to understand that all Calvados (as well as Cognac and Armagnac) is made in pot stills, not just the more expensive ones.


Andy Arrington

Journeyman Drinksmith

Twitter--@LoneStarBarman

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I wonder what kind of stills the US apple brandy makers are using? The better Calvados is from a pot still.

Also all Calvados contains some amount of pear brandy.  So add in those two factors and I think it accounts for the big differences Calvados and our apple brandy.

I know Domfront Calvados uses pears, but I understood that most Calvados producers from other AOC's used apples alone.

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Sorry, the exact quote I heard from F. Paul Pacult was "Virtually all Calvados have a little bit of pear brandy".

As far as pot or column still. Calvados labeled Calvados Pays d'Auge is the only Calvados that must be from a pot still and distilled twice .If it is labeled just Calvados it is from a column still and distilled once. Calvados Domfrontais is also from a column still and must contain at least 30% pears. I don't know for sure if for Calvados Domfrontais some distillers use a pot still but it doesn't seem likely from a quick google search.

A page with some Calvados information:

http://www.nicks.com.au/Index.aspx?link_id=76.1300

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Laird's makes 2 nice, real brandies...one minimum 7.5 years old and the other 12 years old.

As far as I know, all Laird's products are made from the same apple distillate. The difference is that the applejack is a 4-6 year old apple brandy blended with neutral spirits, dosed with apple wine and diluted to 80 proof. The bonded apple brandy is aged for 6 years or more* and diluted to 100 proof. The 7.5 and 12 year old bottlings start out with the same apple distillate as used in the applejack and bonded products, aged longer and diluted to 80 proof.

* My understanding is that Laird's ability to make quantities of apple brandy is directly related to the availability of apples.** Some years there is an abundant supply and they are able to do a large run. Some years the supply is so limited that they won't distill any at all. What this means is that, while the Bottled in Bond act says that bonded spirits must be aged a minimum of 4 years in a charred new oak barrel*** and Laird's says their bonded product is a minimum of 6 years old. But sometimes they don't have any 6 year old spirit because they did not run the stills 6 years ago. As a result, sometimes Laird's is bottling their bonded product at a significantly higher age. I believe they've been using a 8 year old recently.

** Hardly anyone is growing cider/distilling apples in America any more, which may be a reason why European-style apple brandies do not compare very well to the French versions. Laird's product is distilled from regular old eating apples.

*** I don't know of anyone else who is aging their apple brandy in charred new oak barrels, and I'm not aware of anyone in America who is aging their product as long as Laird's does. I doubt that any of the new American producers are putting anywhere near the 6+ years that Laird's puts on its bonded product.


Edited by slkinsey (log)

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I wonder whether Laird's has a specific recipe it uses; e.g., 20% Golden Delicious, 35% Winesap, 18% York, and 27% Idared, or does it use whatever apples happen to be abundant in any given year. If it buys apples based upon price and availability, the product should be different from year to year.

I understand that Norman Calvados makers may use dozens of varieties of apples in any given batch but I also understand that apple production varies from year to year so that some varieties may produce heavily and others sparsely. On occasion, at least here in the states, certain early-flowering apples may fail altogether, at least on a local basis, because of late freezes If production of apples varies in Normandy as well, it must be difficult for Calvados producers to maintain consistancy from year to year. In that respect, Calvados would be more like wine than grain-based distillates, such a bourbon or scotch.

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I don't know whether they can specify what blend of apples they use or not. Since they get their apples from the Shenandoah Valley, I can't imagine that there is all that much variation in blend from year to year. Also, the extent of their aging, the use of charred oak barrels and perhaps some blending for consistency probably act to mitigate any large yearly variations.

Your comparison to grape-based distillates may be an apt one. But consider that there really isn't much year-to-year variation in, say, Courvoisier XO. With apple brandies in particular, I find that they tend to increasingly lose a definable "apple character" after 8 years or so of age. I've tasted some 20+ year old Calvados, and it didn't particularly taste of apples. Similarly, Laird's bonded has much more apple flavor than their 12 year product.


Edited by slkinsey (log)

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Wonderful discussion here, folks, I've learned a lot. I'm a fan of both Calvados and Laird's bonded, and alternate snorts day-to-day in the cooler months. Both are eminently enjoyable. I haven't had a chance to try the older Laird's products, but what I enjoy is the fact that I can tate apples in the brandies.


Bob Libkind aka "rlibkind"

Robert's Market Report

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*** I don't know of anyone else who is aging their apple brandy in charred new oak barrels, and I'm not aware of anyone in America who is aging their product as long as Laird's does.  I doubt that any of the new American producers are putting anywhere near the 6+ years that Laird's puts on its bonded product.

I picked up the Clear Creek 8 yr over the weekend; for the oak, they're using old Cognac Limousin barrels. The distiller is definitely going for an overall Calvados-like character, though the entry retained an applejack-esque bite.

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Right. But what I find interesting is that at just a touch over double the price of Laird's bonded, Clear Creek's "eau de vie de pomme" is . . . not quite as good.


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As I've been thinking about ways to enter the food industry, distilling apples is one thing that caught my attention. I live in Atlanta, and there are many orchards in northern Georgia.

Why, then, aren't they making apple spirits? Or hard apple cider, like you might find in northern Spain? Most great traditional foods are simply a product of what was around, finding new ways to use it, and doing so for centuries. Wouldn't northern Georgia be better off by creating something unique than selling a commodity?

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Distilling is not the easiest thing in the world to do. It costs a lot of money to start up, there are lots of licensing and technology costs, etc. And making a flavorful-and-good spirit is difficult to master (which is why most small-scale distilleries start out making vodka -- aka neutral alcohol). On top of that, if you want to age your spirit, that not only adds lots of cost (you have to get the barrels, there is some loss during aging, you have to pay for the warehouse, etc.) but it then takes you several years to find out if you've made something good.

The apple growers, meanwhile, don't care who they sell the apples to, so long as they are paid the going price. If someone wants to make sidra or apple brandy in Georgia, nothing is stopping them from trying. The fact that only Laird's seems to be able to make an American apple brandy of quality at a reasonable price suggests that it's not so easy to do.


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Distilling is not the easiest thing in the world to do.  It costs a lot of money to start up, there are lots of licensing and technology costs, etc.  And making a flavorful-and-good spirit is difficult to master (which is why most small-scale distilleries start out making vodka -- aka neutral alcohol).  On top of that, if you want to age your spirit, that not only adds lots of cost (you have to get the barrels, there is some loss during aging, you have to pay for the warehouse, etc.) but it then takes you several years to find out if you've made something good.

The apple growers, meanwhile, don't care who they sell the apples to, so long as they are paid the going price.  If someone wants to make sidra or apple brandy in Georgia, nothing is stopping them from trying.  The fact that only Laird's seems to be able to make an American apple brandy of quality at a reasonable price suggests that it's not so easy to do.

That all sounds about right except for the part about growers being satisfied if they are paid the going price. Like any farmer, apple growers would be thrilled to find effective ways to stimulate demand for their produce to increase that going rate. That is what the farmstead Calvados makers so common in Normandy do to get more for the fruits of their agricultural labors. The Normans, however, have the right fruit, the skill, the experience, and the equipment to make a distillate that, apparently, finds a receptive public. All that is absent here except, perhaps, for the receptive public which may or may not be present in the states. We won't know if that exists until there is more apple brandy available for the public to receive, if that ever happens at all.

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I think you may be confusing "artisanal" apple growers with farmers who are in it to try to make money -- which is most of them.


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It would take a significant investment to hopefully reap future benefits. I'm not saying it is easy, or what farmers want to do, but it could lead to a unique product that would help to define an area, or give it some clout. Perhaps generate tourism, longer-term.

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I suspect that growers, both artisanal and not, prefer to increase the going rate for their apples by whatever means. If a large grower in the Yakima Valley believes there is a sure-fire, high-priced market for obscure apple varieties to be converted into high-proof alcohol, that grower will plant those varieties. Will that ever happen? Probably not. That leaves the artisanal growers and Laird's in the yet-small field hoping, no doubt, that selling distilled spirits is the best way to make the most money from apples.

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I should point out that Laird's -- which makes IMO by far the best apple brandy in the US -- does not use obscure apple cultivars developed to be turned into cider and distilled into spirits. As far as I know, they use the fruit of the same cultivars you can buy in the supermarket.

Unfortunately, if there ever were significant numbers of cider/spirit apple trees in the US, there aren't now. This is unlike traditional European apple cider and apple spirit producing areas of the world such as Calvados, Asturias, South West England, etc. that have a more or less continuous tradition of apple-based alcoholic beverages and therefore a more or less continuous population of specialized apple cultivars for these purposes.

Planting and growing apple trees in the US for a supposed future market for apple-based distillates on a large scale? It seems highly unlikely this will happen in the forseeable future. Figure it takes around 4 years before a new apple tree will be ready to bear significant fruit. Figure another 4 years to put some age on the apple distillate. Figure 2 years of planning. Ten years is a pretty long time and a pretty large investment with no guarantee of a return. And if it doesn't work out? The growers have to rip out all those cider apple trees, plant something they can sell, and then wait for those trees to bear fruit.

Ultimately, the reason to ferment alcoholic beverages or distill spirits was exactly because it was the best way to either make money off of your crops, or it was the only way to conveniently preserve the value. Unfortunately, Prohibition gave the US alcoholic beverages industry a huge hit from which it still hasn't fully recovered, and with respect to things like apples, refrigeration and improved transportation changed the economics. This is why we still don't have one of the great American spirits of all: aged peach brandy. 150 years ago, the best thing they could do with the superabundance of peaches at harvest time was distill them into brandy. Now, making brandy is less profitable than shipping peaches across the country.

Frankly, if Georgia wants to bring out a distinctive, artisinal spirit -- peach brandy is a much more logical place to start than apple brandy. There's a niche where there is literally no competition.


Edited by slkinsey (log)

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Eve's Cidery in the Finger Lakes region of New York is a small producer cultivating cider apples for alcoholic cider and apple wine. They aren't distilling brandies as far as I know, but I wouldn't be surprised if they got there eventually. Meanwhile, I highly recommend the very dry Northern Spy cider--

http://evescidery.com/productview.htm?id=138

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