Applejack Old Fashioned
2 oz apple brandy
teaspoon maple syrup (or ½ tsp maple and ½ tsp cinnamon syrup)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 dash baking spice bitters
orange peel for garnish
In a chilled mixing glass, combine the apple brandy, maple syrup, and bitters. Fill with ice and stir for 18-25 seconds. Strain into a chilled rocks glass over ice - preferably one large cube. Express the oils of the orange peel and add it into the glass. Add a cinnamon stick, if you like.
Or, build in a rock glass, stir with ice, garnish and sevre.
The Applejack Old Fashioned is the perfect stirred autumn cocktail. It is my go-to when the leaves begin to change color (as well as when it's 70° in October and I'm trying to pretend it feels like fall).
This drink is a textbook example using a classic cocktail as a blueprint for a new variation. It keeps the proportions of a traditional Old Fashioned intact and simply swaps in new ingredients. Instead of whiskey: apple brandy. Instead of sugar: maple syrup. Instead of orange bitters: "baking spice" bitters (details below) which add notes of cinnamon, clove, and allspice that tie the whole thing together.
To experience this drink in its ultimate form, split the maple syrup portion with cinnamon syrup (or maybe just get some of this stuff). Then build a fire, put on your coziest flannel, and sink into autumnal bliss.
Baking Spice Bitters
As I explain here, this isn't an actual category but a term I use for bitters that feature dark, baking spice flavors, particularly cinnamon. I recommend these:
On the Old Fashioned’s dedicated page I advocate for a few drops of baking spice bitters as well, but in that case it’s optional, here’s I think it’s essential to experiencing the Applejack Old Fashioned in all its majesty. But that being said, if you only have Angostura bitters, you’ll still get a delicious cocktail. The apple brandy is is really what it's all about.
Applejack vs. Apple Brandy (There's No Difference)
To be perfectly clear, Applejack is Apple Brandy, they are interchangeable terms. Though there used to be more of a distinction.
Americans have been making booze from apples as far back as the 1600s. With no shortage of apples in the northeast, thirsty colonists made hard cider which could be then distilled into apple brandy. But distillation requires a still, which not everyone had access to, so many who were in search of a stronger drink turned to a simpler method of concentrating the cider called jacking, aka freeze distillation.
This is when a fermented beverage like hard cider, beer or wine is kept at freezing temperatures so the non-alcoholic elements solidify while the alcohol - which freezes at much lower temperatures - remains a liquid. This ice can then be skimmed off leaving the remaining liquid at a higher proof. The process can be repeated for further concentration, though it won't reach an ABV as high as a traditionally distilled spirit.
Eventually, someone coined "jacked" cider, with the catchy name applejack. No commercial apple brandy is made with this method today. Aside from being prohibitively impractical on a large scale, it’s also quite dangerous because toxic higher alcohols like methanol aren’t removed as they can be with traditional distillation. So hear that kids? Don’t try this at home.
The term Applejack persists today presumably because it sounds cool (and very cool at that, that's the only reason I call it an Applejack Old Fashioned, as opposed to an Apple Brandy Old Fashioned). You still see printed applejack on labels sometimes, just remember there’s no production-related difference from apple brandy. However, sometimes a spirit will be labeled as “Blended Applejack”, or “Applejack - a Blend”. These are a mixture of 20-30% apple brandy with the rest being neutral grain spirits - not bad, but not my favorite.
There’s no need to dilute maple syrup for cocktails - as you would with, say, honey. It can be used straight out of the bottle, and it should be real maple syrup, as in from a tree. I don’t have anything against Aunt Jemima on pancakes, but there’s something off about them in it in cocktails that reminds me of cough syrup.
Maple Syrup Grades
There are four grades of maple syrup which are subheadings of Grade A (a bit redundant I would say, but whatever). They are organized, quite literally, by color and taste:
Golden Color and Delicate Taste
Amber Color and Rich Flavor
Dark Color and Robust Flavor
Very Dark Color and Strong Flavor
As you can see, the darker the syrup, the stronger its flavor. For cocktails, stronger is ideal but any will suffice. Keep in mind these grades have nothing to do with quality, it’s just different flavor profiles. All maple syrup is made the same way. The sap is collected and boiled down until to syrup consistency. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup (!!!). The differences between the grades is a result of when the sap was tapped. Sap runs off lighter when tapping begins which is usually somewhere between late January-mid March depending on how cold it is, and gets progressively darker throughout the season, which typically taps out - sorry, couldn't help myself - after 4-6 weeks.
Former Maple Syrup Grading System
This grading system is new as of 2014. The old system had 3 subheadings of Grade A as well as a Grade B which was the darkest and strongest in flavor, and the bartender's choice for cocktails (there was also a grade C that wasn't commercially available and sold to factories for wholesale production of things like maple candy). This labeling led to the understandable misconception that grades B and C were lower quality, which precipitated the change. So some old cocktail books or articles that recommend grade B - such as mine perhaps - would refer to dark or very dark today.
Laird’s Apple Brandy
As I've made a point to mention before, I don’t usually like to recommend brands (though admittedly, I tend to point this out when I'm about to recommend a brand), but in this case, I can’t help it. Laird’s 100 proof Apple Brandy (pictured above) is easily my top choice in an Applejack Old Fashioned. It’s what I the drink was introduced to me with back when I started working at Clover Club in 2009. Without Laird's, it just doesn’t taste like an Old Fashioned to me. The best part? It shouldn't cost you more than $25-30.
It's made by Laird’s and Co., which is based in New Jersey, though the distillation takes place in Virginia. They are the most pervasive producer of apple brandy in America and makes a variety of excellent products, including a 12 year old apple brandy. You can peruse the rest on their site .
Need another reason to use Laird’s? It's steeped American history. There’s was the first licensed distillery in the United States back in 1780. Even better, turns out George Washington was a fan! According to a New York Times article, Washington asked the Lairds for their recipe around 1760. In 1763 he notes in his diary that he "began selling cider."
The company also has a bill of sale from Abraham Lincoln. He ran a Tavern in Illinois back in the 1830s, and apparently, Laird's Applejack was on the menu. As if we needed another reason to love Honest Abe.
I'm, of course, well aware that I'm purely biased. If you have something you like better, let me know. I could stand to branch out a bit.
The History (or lack thereof) of the Applejack Old Fashioned
While the spirit has been around for ages, the Applejack Old Fashioned cocktail wasn’t really a thing until the 21st century. I’m sure someone fixed one up at some point or another, but it wasn’t written about or printed in cocktail books. Something close appears in Ted Saucier’s 1951 “Bottoms Up”, though it’s simply an Old Fashioned listed with applejack, no maple syrup or different bitters. Personally, I don’t think a ton of thought was put into this recipe. There are also Old Fashioneds listed with bourbon, rye, Irish whisky, scotch and rum all of with are virtually identical aside from the spirit. Don’t get me wrong, the book is great and a very important piece of cocktail history, but it definitely has its share of filler, like the recipe for bourbon on the rocks.
When the classic Old Fashioned came back in en vogue again at the turn of the millennium, it sparked a family of variations using different spirits. I think this is when the Applejack Old Fashioned as we know it today took shape. Here’s a blog post from Paul Clarke’s Cocktail Chronicles, one of the more influential blogs of this new cocktail era, that was posted in 2007. I think this is around that time the drink started to catch on.
Apple brandy is simply brandy made from fermented and distilled apples, it has no relation to sweet apple liqueurs used to make apple martinis (yuck). Apple brandies cover a wide array of flavor profiles. As I discuss here, they broadly fall into two categories, Calvados from France, and what I dub American apple brandy, aka applejack. The American style apple brandy tends to have a more bite, making it akin to whiskey, whereas Calvados behaves like a traditional brandy, and is soft and round. Both are delicious, but for this cocktail and those like it (such as my Log Cabin), I think the sharpness of the American style makes it the better choice.