Even though the warm weather makes me doubt the calendar, it is October and high time for scoping out autumn produce at the farmers' markets. Nestled among the winter squash are apples, both edible and drinkable.
Hard cider and applejack can be thought of as the original American drinks, on par with apple pie and more traditional than zinfandel. As it was easy for farmers to grow and make, hard cider was the most popular alcoholic drink prior to Prohibition. Cider spread west with the pioneers and with Johnny Appleseed efforts. In contrast, the widespread manufacture of beer in the U.S. only began in the late 19th century when German immigrants started establishing commercial breweries in their new country, and the widespread popularity of wine lagged until the 1970's.
Applejack, a blend of apple brandy and neutral spirits, was the Cristal of its day: just as the champagne has had its famous fans, applejack had George Washington. Laird's applejack, which has been distilled commercially by the Laird family of New Jersey since 1780, was such a favorite of Washington's he asked for the recipe, which makes me hope that a Jay-Z champagne will be in the works.
Laird's has a clean, light nose of apples, though the fire of the neutral spirits almost drowns out the apple notes. There is a whisper of sweetness to the drink that reminds me of another spirit distilled from a sugary crop, corn whiskey - better known as bourbon. Laird's could make clever stand-in for it in some cocktail recipes.
Washington's fellow founding father, wine connoisseur Thomas Jefferson, was partial to hard cider, and wrote that it is "more like wine than any liquor I have ever tasted that was not wine." I generally think of cider as the uncomplicated, sweet stuff that's good for quaffing by the pint in Irish bars. For this tasting I wanted to test Jefferson's claim, so I picked up the extra-dry offering from Farnum Hill of Lebanon, New Hampshire.
The cider, which I sipped respectfully from a champagne glass, is yellow-gold with medium size bubbles. It smells beautifully of an orchard with a lot of apples rotting on the ground, accented by hints of baking spices. However, the cider is bone-dry and acidic, bordering on acrid, and just barely tastes of apples or any other fruit.
I drank the cider with dinner as Farnum Hill suggests on the bottle but it didn't add much to my pork chop and squash. It was, however, nice with the Turkish dried apricots I had for dessert, and it might also be good with fruit and creamy cheeses as it needs sweetness and opulence to balance the austerity.
Perhaps I am suffering from unrealistic expectations with this cider. I hoped for something opulently redolent of fresh apples, but I get the impression that the residual sugar the Farnum Hill Extra Dry cider lacks is the necessary conduit for apple-ness, and I can't help but wonder if the cellar masters at Farnum Hill made the mistake of conflating "dry" with "sophisticated," or if this is just an interesting experiment that I don't happen to like.
The Farnum Hill Extra Dry tastes to me like cider aspiring to be wine, despite the fact that there's nothing wrong with cider just being itself. Winemaking turns the original fruity essence of the grape into other, dry fruit flavors through fermentation. Flavors like vanilla or leather can be teased out through years of barrel and bottle aging a wine, and the delight and surprise of drinking wine comes from experiencing grapes turned into something else entirely. Apples are not as versatile, but that's okay: cider is best when it is apple soul writ alcoholic (with bubbles!).
An apple oddity that really expresses the generosity a fruit spirit can offer is pommeau. The drink begins its life as calvados - the apple brandy from Normandy - to which fresh apple juice is added. The drink is a dark ruddy brown, and the gently sweet apple flavor is buttressed by the warmth of the brandy. The effect is that of a refined version of rum-spiked cider, more at home at the dinner table then the campout. The one I tried is from Famille L. Dupont, a 2005. At 17% alcohol the drink is about as hefty as port or other fortified wines, so its a nice alternative to strong after-dinner brandies. It would be great set alongside a hunk of blue cheese or any apple dessert.
Pommeau might make a fine ending to Thanksgiving dinner after your family is done toasting the Pilgrims. You might also raise a glass to Jefferson, Washington, and the modern brewers and distillers that continue to practice the classic American methods for drinking up autumn's apples.