Applejack and Apple Brandy: Spirits of the Holidays

by Ken Walczak

Applejackpic1 This time of year, we take comfort in seasonal flavors that bring to mind desserts eaten with loved ones, around a roaring fire or around the Yule Log channel in HD.  With such images dancing in everyone’s heads, it’s only fitting that we sip holiday cocktails that highlight flavors such as apple, cinnamon, and nutmeg. 

All kinds of tasty beverages fit in this category, from nogs to toddys to Tom & Jerrys.  These days, you can even buy something called “apple pie liqueur” at your local BevMo.  (I’m skeptical, even though Becherovka is quite delicious, and Becherovka tastes almost exactly like pumpkin pie.) 

But this year, why not do something a little more classic, a little more old-school, for your holiday drinking companions?  Make them cocktails based on applejack, or apple brandy, the oldest American-distilled spirits.

Laird & Company, from New Jersey, has been making applejack and apple brandy since 1780.  Their 12 year-old apple brandy is, like a good calvados, excellent for sipping neat – next to the aforementioned hearth or anywhere at all.  For cocktail purposes, you’ll want to use the standard Laird’s applejack (which blends apple brandy with neutral spirits and water to make an 80-proof hooch) or the harder to find, but vastly superior, 100 proof bottled-in-bond variety.

Here are three applejack/apple brandy cocktails I have field-tested and perfected.  All of them are guaranteed to spice up your holiday gatherings this season.

Jack Rose

2 oz. applejack or apple brandy
1 oz. fresh lime juice
½ oz. to ¾ oz. grenadine
1 egg white

Shake the first four ingredients with cracked ice; strain into a chilled cocktail glass.  Decorate the foam that forms on the surface with a few drops of a cinnamon-heavy variety of bitters.

Applejackpic2 This is the quintessential applejack cocktail, and likely the only one you’ll find in a just-the-classics style bar manual.  (It’s also Rachel Maddow’s favorite drink.)  The 100-proof Laird’s dramatically improves a Jack Rose.

Use the higher amount of grenadine if you have been able to make or find a real pomegranate version (like Jennifer Colliau’s excellent Small Hand Foods grenadine), without artificial sweeteners or colors.  It takes more of the real stuff to reach the same level of sweetness.

I’ve also added an egg white for foam, so that you can decorate the “head” with a few drops of your favorite cinnamon-y bitters (If you’re anywhere near Cleveland, visit the Velvet Tango Room and ask Paulius if he can part with a little of his homemade variety).

Delicious Sour

1¾ - 2 oz. applejack or apple brandy
1¾ - 2 oz. peach-flavored brandy
Juice of 1 fresh lime
1 egg white
1 teaspoon sugar
Soda water

Shake the first five ingredients in an iced cocktail shaker, and strain into a goblet or large glass (this is a big drink; feel free to halve the recipe for large gatherings or those bewildering guests that tend more toward sobriety).  Add a splash of soda water.  Dust with nutmeg, for extra holiday spirit.

This drink with a super-dull name is excellent when made properly.  The recipe is my tweak on Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh’s.  The good doctor adapted it, in turn, from “The Only William” Schmidt, who published it in The Flowing Bowl in 1892.  (Not to be confused with the new David Wondrich book of similar name.)

If you have it, the 100-proof Laird’s is hefty enough to balance out even the sickeningly sweet cheapo peach brandies that are commonly available.  I used a bottle of “Leroux” peach brandy that I paid $8.99 for roughly a thousand years ago, and the sours came out wonderfully.  If all you have is the 80-proof applejack, you’ll need to go the extra mile with the peach brandy – find something drier and more complex than my Leroux.  Use two ounces of the drier spirit, and 1¾ ounce of the sweeter, unless you have an uncontrollable sweet tooth.


2 oz. applejack or apple brandy
½ ounce pear eau-de-vie
½ ounce pimento dram/allspice liqueur
¼ - ½ oz. Carpano sweet vermouth (Punt e Mes, or Antica Formula) and/or Dubonnet Rouge
1 dash Fee’s Old Fashion Aromatic Bitters (or Abbott’s Bitters, if you’ve got them)
Cinnamon stick

Combine ingredients with cracked ice in a cocktail shaker. Stir like hell for no less than 30 seconds, and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with the cinnamon stick.

The Réveillon tastes just like Christmas in a glass, and yet it is also, to quote the esteemed Dwayne Carter, Jr.: “so, so New Or-laaiins … like 1825, Tulane.”  My recipe comes from another prominent New Orleanian, Chuck Taggart.

With 80-proof applejack, I use just about half an ounce of Dubonnet; with the drier 100-proof Laird’s, I use slightly more than a quarter-ounce of both Dubonnet and Carpano Antica, for extra sweetness.  Haus Alpenz makes a very fine pimento/allspice dram, called Saint Elizabeth.

Happy holidays, and happy holiday drinking!