JOHNNY APPLESEED, BELOVED folk legend and wholesome star of children’s books, wasn’t planting apples for moms to bake into pies. Not even close.
He was planting apples for alcohol.
Today, the Hudson Valley is at the forefront of a trend popularizing apple-based spirits. With no fewer than five Hudson Valley distillers producing apple-based vodkas, gin, applejack and liqueurs, forward-thinking mixologists and open-minded consumers assure that interest in these spirits is more than just a fad. As Jeremy Kidde, of Black Dirt Distillery in Warwick, points out, “We’re certainly seeing a renaissance in hard cider in addition to a renaissance in cocktail making.” Add to this the increased awareness of gluten sensitivity, the push to “eat local” and the enhanced freedoms New York distillers now enjoy, and you’ve got the makings of an incontrovertible movement.
There’s no question that Hudson valley orchards produce exceptional apples, so it seems natural that apple-based drinks should have evolved. Hard cider, perhaps the most familiar, is produced by pressing and fermenting the juice of apples, often employing obscure varieties planted specifically for the drink. Applejack, a rustic spirit not regularly produced outside North America, was popular when Appleseed was busy establishing orchards. In a process called “jacking,” hard cider was frozen in barrels outside during the winter. The water in the cider froze and could be easily skimmed off, leaving behind a highly concentrated apple liquor. But, the process concentrated bad flavors as well—one reason why applejack developed an historically bad reputation. Today in the Hudson Valley, producers are distilling applejack in the manner of Calvados, with exciting results.
Brandy is next in line in the natural evolution of fermented cider. The most popular apple-based brandy is Calvados, a French spirit produced in the Normandy region since the 1500s. Fermented apple (or pear) cider is twice distilled in copper-pot stills, then mellowed in oak for at least two years (most producers go well beyond that). The resulting liquor is potent and, depending on the length of aging, displays a marriage of flavors: roasted apple and pear notes mingled with vanilla, spice and nuts. Eau de vie is typically unaged, clear and highly aromatic. Calvados and eau de vie differ in one essential way: To produce eau de vie, the entire mashed fruit is fermented and distilled rather than just the pressed juice, as in Calvados. Both spirits are often enjoyed after dinner as a digestif, best sipped with a slight chill from small tulip-shaped glasses.
Derek Grout, of Harvest Spirits in Valatie, adopted applejack early on: He created Cornelius Applejack, named for Cornelius Murray, a Jamaican cider-presser who has worked on the family farm for more than 35 years. Grout distills his fermented cider and ages it in used bourbon barrels. The resulting spirit, “with intense honeyed notes,” as described by Paul Maloney of Stockade Tavern, Kingston’s thoughtfully appointed haven for classic cocktails, is the basis for the bar’s Applejack Julep. With hints of butterscotch and honey, it’s refreshing and satisfying.
Two of the first proponents of Hudson Valley apple brandy—Jeremy Kidde and Jason Grizzanti, of Warwick Valley Winery—produce eaux de vie and fruit liqueurs for their American Fruits Distillery line. Having produced both cider and wine, it was clear, as Kidde says, that “the future of [our] business was apple-based—grape growing wasn’t as feasible.” Warwick Valley Winery’s American Fruits apple eau de vie became the base for Black Dirt Apple Jack, which eventually led to the founding of Black Dirt Distillery.
With enjoyment of eau de vie mainly reserved for apres dinner, it occurred to the young duo that a whiskey-like brandy might be more marketable, so they began aging eau de vie in barrels. They chose to create an applejack similar to historic Laird & Company’s “Bottled in Bond” product (undiluted, 100 proof pure apple brandy). At Stockade Tavern, Maloney carefully builds Applejack Old Fashioneds using Black Dirt, garnishing with a large swath of lemon peel. “This drink evolves—it benefits from a few minutes in the glass,” he intones. “This is a drink that should taste great over time and at the end of the drink.”
The newest kids on the apple distilling block are Chris Moyer and Tom Yozzo, of Hudson Valley Distillers in Clermont. These college friends converted a rundown old barn attached to four acres of apple orchards and started making a range of spirits. Most of their products are cider-based, using fruit sourced from within five miles of the distillery. The distillers have introduced two applejacks in addition to a vodka; all are distilled from cider. Derek Williams, of New Paltz’s popular Italian mainstay A Tavola and The Huguenot, a new restaurant exuding simple sophistication, comments, “For a first release, these guys have really created something—they’re all so good.” Hudson Valley Distillers’ Adirondack Applejack releases subtle hints of vanilla and spice (“Somewhere between an ice cider and an applejack, but without the sweetness”) while Hardscrabble Applejack is more floral and butterscotch, with whiskey-like notes—an ideal nip on a cold Hudson Valley autumn evening.
The breakthrough event that helped spur development of these products occurred in 2002, when the laws regulating New York’s distilleries were loosened. These changes, along with the 2007 Farm Distillery’s Act and Governor Cuomo’s 2012 further expansion of allowable retail sales, created an economic environment in which the distilling industry can thrive.
“It’s a win-win,” says Ralph Erenzo, of Tuthilltown Spirits in Gardiner. “It’s an enormous way to raise revenue for farmers and increase tax revenue for New York.”
Following the 2002 breakthrough, Erenzo and his partner, Brian Lee—both self-taught distillers—began producing apple-based vodka made from scraps obtained from a nearby apple-slicing plant. Today, Tuthilltown Spirits’ Indigenous vodka is made using apples from local orchards that are, like Hudson Valley Distillers, no more than five miles from the distillery. It, too, is made from the fermented cider, in this case triple-distilled.
Tuthilltown Spirits also released Half Moon Orchard Gin, crafted from local wheat and apples. Although most of the flavor comes from the wheat, the apples help make the gin especially smooth. Chief Distiller Joel Elder says a slight scent of apple and a distinct absence of juniper make Tuthilltown’s gin a more versatile spirit, and Williams agrees. “This is the best product they make—it’s not so heavy on the juniper and has more bergamot,” he notes. “It blends in with a multitude of mixers or stands alone.” For his La Luna alla Salvia cocktail at A Tavola, Williams first muddles sage with the gin, then adds chamomile and an Italian amaro. The drink is perfectly layered; notes of sage can be detected even before the first sip, then an almost citrusy element develops before finishing dry while a bit of alpine from the amaro and sage interplay. It’s a perfect holiday party drink to accompany snacks of salty spiced nuts or pumpkin risotto cakes.
Grout’s first release at Harvest Spirits also was a vodka, named Core, made by distilling hard cider three times. Similar to the other apple-based vodkas from the region, this spirit carries a faint hint of apples, but the flavors are decidedly dry—a great partner mixed with fresh fruit juices. “I like [Core] because it really doesn’t taste like apples—it tastes more like bananas,” says Riley Murkett, of Club Helsinki Hudson, a stylishly renovated industrial building in Hudson that is now a restaurant, music venue and event space. Murkett has created numerous seasonal cocktails with Core; last winter, he featured the Dinah Washington, made with Core, Chambord, thyme and smoked cranberries.
While these distillers have found firm footing for their apple-based spirits in both restaurants and retail shops, they continue to develop. Hudson Valley Distillers already has a third applejack in production, aged in a custom, proprietary barrel blend using a different species of wood for the staves than for the heads, which creates layers of spice in a sarsaparilla-like applejack—think adult ice cream float. Black Dirt Distillery plans to release both single-barrel and single-varietal applejacks in the future. Likewise, Harvest Spirits will release a traditional, Colonial-style applejack called Scrumpy—at about 17 percent alcohol, it has some residual sugar, but also a pronounced acidity reminiscent of a delicately sweet Madeira.
It was a long time coming, but the success of these new value-added products is helping to make the future of the Hudson Valley apple industry quite a bit brighter. “I’m excited and honored to be on the forefront of the Hudson Valley movement,” Williams proclaims. “I like that it took a while and gave people the chance to come out with great products, rather than settling for mediocrity.”
With the growth and excitement surrounding these spirits, there is little doubt that Johnny Appleseed, if alive today, would be part of the cause, helping to create new and even more compelling ways to enjoy an apple a day.