Liking Them Apples - In a Glass!

photo by MTSOfan
photo by MTSOfan

The leaves are changing in the Hudson valley, Autumn is most certainly here, and it's time to drink apple brandy!

Though Normandy is home to many old apple brandy producers, many of whom enjoy the AOC Calvados distinction, there are very few restrictions and designations to govern labeling outside of France. This makes for a huge amount of variation from product to product. That being said, the type of apple used to make each brandy has a very large impact on the final product and can be used, in some cases, to predict what “the style the brandy inside” will be.

In general, apple brandies made from the type of apples we would otherwise eat are a little bit more obviously “apple-y”. They tend to express themselves more completely at a younger age, mostly because they are relying on more familiar (though delicious) flavors. Products made from tannic, tart “cider apples” and “brandy apples” are more delicate and intricate. They bear more resemblance to the old grape brandies of the world. Their flavor profiles are often more complex and oxidative and they rely more heavily on extended aging in wood. In Calvados, they can also incorporate local pears into the cider and distillate for fuller body and added complexity. Though apple brandy is made all over the world, the two main producers are France and America.

One wonderful thing about American apple brandy is that apples grow differently in many parts of the country. Moreover, every climate affects brandy maturation differently, giving us varying regional styles to enjoy. Here are a few of my favorites from around the country:

Apples destined for brandy, photo by badly drawn dad.
Apples destined for brandy, photo by badly drawn dad.

It is hard not to love Harvest Spirits in the Hudson Valley. They were around before the recent micro-distillery boom in New York and their Cornelius Apple Jack is made from crisp, delicious “eating apples”. It is one of those products that is a clear labor of love and family farming tradition. They make the very tasty Core Apple Vodka as well. Also from the Northeast is the larger, more established Lairds and Company in New Jersey. They have a variety of products, my favorite of which (for the price) is the 7 ½ year old Apple Brandy. As a transition out west, it would be irresponsible for me not to mention the cult-classic Leopold Bros, whose New York Apple Flavored Whiskey is a rested blend of New York Apple Cider and their iconic Corn and Rye Mash Whiskey.

I am also very fond of the work being done at Santa Fe Distillery in New Mexico. Their apple brandy is a dry, Calvados-style brandy made from tart (but edible), mountain west apples. I love sipping it alongside nuts and cheese and have stirred it into plenty of spiritus cocktails.

photo by Amanda Slater
photo by Amanda Slater

Finally, two of California’s rock star brandy distilleries produce wonderful Apple Brandies. Germain Robin produces the polished and deep Apple XO. Like all of their brandies, the Apple XO is powerfully concentrated and perfectly balanced. Their slow distillation and high quality casks coax amazing flavors from California apples. I am also a huge fan of the Osocalis apple brandy, made from a blend of apples including crab apples for --among other things-- an elevated acidity during fermentation. Osocalis aged their Apple Brandy for 15 years before release and it shows. Each sip offers a different variety of baked apple, candied, nut, and slight barrel tannin.

The most famous French apple brandies come from the Calvados region in Normandy. Calvados is, by law, aged for at least 2 years (usually more). Though column distillation is permitted in some areas, the high-quality sub-region of Pays d’Auge requires a double distillation in pot stills, and most producers in other parts of Calvados do this as well. Calvados uses over 300 different varieties of apples, ranging from juicy and sweet to hard and bone dry. However, their blends tend to be much drier and acidic than their American counterparts.

My favorite sipping Calvados is the Christian Drouin Coeur de Lion XO. This expression is slightly sweeter than some other old Calvados expressions and hints a little bit more at the rich, baked apple flavors that I crave in the fall and winter. That being said, the Coeur de Lion XO has a wonderful oxidative element that can only come from a spirit that is expertly aged.

A Laird's Old Fashioned, photo by Tim Sackton
A Laird's Old Fashioned, photo by Tim Sackton

I am also very fond of the Lemorton Calvados series. I recently tasted their Calvados Lemorton Selection, and Vintage 1986 Calvados, both of which were pointedly dry and tart, speaking of a beautiful place and tradition far from my home in New York. They showed off the old-fashioned orchard fruit farming in Calvados. Some of Lemorton’s products, including Lemorton Selection, are sourced from the AOC Calvados Domfrontais region that requires a minimum of 30% pear juice to be used in the base cider and requires 3 years aging instead of 2. Lemorton also produces one of my favorite discoveries this year, a Pommeau Domfrontais made by fortifying sweet apple and pear juices with Domfrontais Calvados.

There are so many apple brandy options to choose from, but the entire category is treated tragically seasonal in America! Grab a bottle for drinks after a dinner party, or enjoy a seasonal cocktail while they are still on menus around the country. Perfect for autumn sipping.