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An Appley Autumn: Apple Brandy—a.k.a. Jersey Lightning—at George Washington’s Distillery

While largely unknown today, applejack and apple brandy (spirits made from hard apple cider) during the 18th and 19th centuries were among the most popular spirits in the Mid-Atlantic states. Virtually every farmer with some apple trees would freeze distill—or “jack”—apple cider in the winter. As a result of burgeoning interest in cocktails, apple brandy has regained some popularity, but it remains a largely obscure ingredient.

So when last week I wrote about calvados—apple brandy’s French cousin—and calvados cocktails, I did not expect to write about any apple spirits for at least another year. However, the day after I turned in the article I received a press release informing me that George Washington’s Distillery was going to be making a batch of apple brandy, and I could not resist writing about it, especially in view of a possible historic New Jersey connection.

George Washington’s Distillery is an eight-year-old working replica of the distillery that Washington built on the outskirts of his Virginia estate, Mount Vernon, in 1797. Although the distillery only operated for a little more than a decade, at the time it was one of the largest commercial distilleries in the U.S. The current distillery—which was built on the excavated foundation of the original—contains four replica 18th-century wood-fired copper-pot stills, all of which were distilling apple brandy during my visit last Sunday. The smell in the room was redolent of mulled apple cider and wood smoke: it was just heavenly.

However, George Washington’s Distillery is not the only place in Virginia to make apple brandy. About a hundred miles to the west is the Laird and Company’s distillery, and the Laird family of New Jersey has been distilling apple cider for more than two centuries. Founded and headquartered in Monmouth County (they moved the distilling operations to Virginia in 1972), Laird and Company is the United States’ first commercial distillery, and has been distilling Jersey lightning since 1780.

According to a tradition at Laird’s, Robert Laird, the company’s founder who served in the Continental Army under General Washington, gave Washington his recipe for “cyder spirits.” “I’ve heard that in a couple of places,” says Steven Bashore, the Director of Historic Trades at Mount Vernon, who was running the stills during my visit. “Nothing in our records indicates that [the story is true]… but Washington did make apple brandy here.” In fact, Washington’s distillery ledger includes an entry in October 1799, showing that 67 gallons of apple brandy were transferred from the distillery for use at the “Mount Vernon House.”

In 2011, Washington’s Distillery made their first apple brandy (which sold out within a couple of hours upon release). This year they are making their second batch, which is being double-distilled and aged in four ex-bourbon barrels for 18 to 24 months. This will result in roughly 600 375ml bottles which will each retail for approximately $150.

Washington’s distillery is open to the public daily from April through October, including when the stills are in operation. Bashore expected several hundred visitors during the five-day production run. In addition to apple brandy, George Washington’s Distillery also produces rye whiskey, peach brandy, and just released its first single-malt whisky—two bottles of which sold for $26,000 at a charity auction.

George Washington’s Distillery is located at 5513 Mount Vernon Memorial Hwy, Alexandria, VA 22309. For information on visiting the distillery, please see http://www.mountvernon.org/plan-your-visit/what-to-see/visit-distillery-gristmill/.

The Jack Rose Cocktail

Since last week I discussed two classic French cocktails made with calvados, this week I thought I would mention a classic American apple brandy cocktail—The Jack Rose Cocktail. This tart, rose-colored drink was created by New Jersey bartender Frank May sometime during the first few years of the 20th century. There are several theories as to the origin of the drink’s name, but the most popular is that it was named for Bald Jack Rose, a well-known Jewish mobster.

¼ cup apple brandy

2 tbsp. freshly squeezed lime juice

1 tbsp. grenadine

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice, add ingredients, shake well and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Notes on ingredients:

Laird’s Apple Brandy is the only American brand readily available on the market; however, its kashrus status is undetermined. Although the flavor profile is slightly different, you can replace the apple brandy with calvados. Two good choices are Calvados Coquerel, which is certified kosher by the Orthodox Union (FillerUp Kosher Wines in Teaneck sells the 2-year-old version for $28 and the four-year-old version for $42), and Calvados Boulard, which is officially considered kosher without certification by the Kashruth Authority of the London Beth Din (KLBD), by the Grand Rabbinat du Bas Rhin Beth Din de Strasbourg, and by the Consistoire de Paris.

The grenadine you use should be made with pomegranate juice. (Stirrings makes an authentic pomegranate juice-based grenadine that is certified kosher by the OU.) Grenadine can easily be made at home (see recipe below).

Homemade Grenadine

(Yield: 1 ½  cups)

1 cup (fresh or bottled) pomegranate juice

1 cup raw sugar

1 ½  tbsp. vodka (optional, as a preservative)

In a saucepan over a medium-low flame, heat the juice and the sugar, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to simmer and the sugar is fully dissolved. Let cool, stir in the vodka, and transfer to a small bottle or jar (I like to reuse a 20-oz. soda bottle). If kept refrigerated the grenadine should stay for at least a month. If you are planning to finish the grenadine in under a week, you need not add the vodka.

By Gamliel Kronemer

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