If you’re into vintage — your dad’s aviators, reclaimed wood counters, old military watches — then it doesn’t get much more old school than apple brandy, a spirit distilled from the hard cider of fermented fresh apples and then aged in oak. Though it was distilled in Normandy slightly earlier (today it’s called Calvados there), apple brandy was the spirit of the day in American Colonial times, made by some of our founding fathers at Mt. Vernon and Monticello. Though its mainstream role in America’s drinking culture was killed off by cheap corn and grain and Prohibition, craft distillers are keeping the American tradition alive with small-batch apple brandies that would make a Frenchman drop his cheese plate: they range from rustic and fiery to smooth and complex, the best brushing up against the flavors of Cognac (made with grapes). These three are among the best you can get your pie- and freedom-loving paws on.
Clear Creek Eau de Vie de Pomme
Portland-based Clear Creek makes one of the most respected apple brandies in the United States. It’s made with Golden Delicious apples from the Yakima Valley and then aged in a combination of old and new Limousin oak Cognac barrels for eight years or more, producing a spirit with a pale golden color that smells like apples, grass, herbs and spice.
Tasting Notes: It’s smooth and relatively light bodied, unfolding in the mouth with the flavor of apple cobbler with plenty of cinnamon and an oaky finish. Some tasters found chemical notes, but overall we think it makes an excellent after-dinner drink.
Germain-Robin Heirloom Apple Brandy
Founded in 1982 in Mendocino County, California, Germain-Robin makes superb brandy using an antique pot still and aging in air-dried Limousin oak. This brandy is made from heirloom apples from the Anderson Valley. It’s a beautiful light amber color in a bottle with a label that looks like a Georgia O’Keeffe still-life.
Tasting Notes: It smells like sweet, very ripe apples — luscious, spicy and welcoming. The taste is super rich and roasty with a kick of brown sugar and a nice amount of heat. Drink it on its own, with your morning coffee (French style), or mixed into some apple cider for a simple cocktail.
St. George California Reserve Apple Brandy
Another California distillery founded in 1982, St. George is now located at the Alameda Naval Air Station just outside of San Francisco (near the fantastic Antique Faire). Like Germain-Robin, their roots are also in brandy, though today they make everything from gin to absinthe to single malt whisky. This bottle of apple brandy was just rolled out in October, the only one they’ve made except for a custom bottling for the New York restaurant Eleven Madison Park.
Tasting Notes: Color-wise, it’s right in the middle of the pack, the golden hue of apple juice. St. George smells like a cloud of honey and tart apples. The taste is a luscious combination of green apples and caramel with a dry finish. One taster compared it to a wheated bourbon. We like this on its own or mixed into a hot toddy.