Apple Brandy

March 23, 2010

Apple brandy is distilled cider. To make brandy, you first ferment apple juice into cider, and then you heat the cider at a temperature in which the alcohol evaporates while the water does not. It is done in such a controlled method that the alcohol vapor becomes condensation and is collected as a liquid, allowed to age (usually in oak), and then bottled. Ben Watson described it in Cider: Hard & Sweet, “In this way, humble hard cider undergoes a kind of metamorphosis, from light, low-alcohol drink that quenches the thirst on  a hot summer’s day to a volatile, intoxicating liquid that warms the heart and fires the soul in the dark watches of a winter night” (page 116).

Watson also attributes the first written reference to distilling cider to Gilles de Gouberville in 1553. It quickly rose in popularity, enough so that France granted a closed guild of apple brandy distillers in 1606.

Considered the best apple brandy in the world, Calvados is made in a Normandy, France region where it got its name and other parts of Normandy. There, regulations stipulate that only Calvados can come from this region, and the cider must be double distilled. Watson explains:

“The cider is distilled twice, as the first pass though the still results in a liquor that is only about 30 to 40 percent alcohol. The French call this first run les petites eaux, or ‘little waters,’ which is the same thing whiskey distillers refer to as ‘low wines.’ Revaporizing these low wines in the still doubles their strength and produces a clear, roughly apple brandy of around 140 to 150 proof (70 to 75 percent alcohol). The second distillation also ensures that the brandy, after aging, will have sufficient body and bouquet. Like good whiskeys, Calvados loses much of its rough, raw edge during storage. It is always barrel-aged in wood, preferably in oak casks… Calvados must be aged for at least two years at a storage temperature around 55⁰ F… most Calvados takes on a golden straw or light amber hue during the long-term tenure inside the oak cask… Before bottling, the brandy is sometimes cut back with distilled water to a final strength of between 80 and 100 proof (40 to 50 percent alcohol)” (page 118-119).

At my tour of Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, OR, I learned that they only used Golden Delicious apples to make their apple brandy. They crushed the apples, but did not press them before allowing them to ferment. This technique is common with eau-de-vie. Watson says it was explained to him as part of a New York State Agricultural Experiment Station demonstration as a way to have a prolonged contact with the pulp and skins, which increases the bouquet of the distilled cider. I should note also that Clear Creek Distillery only did a single distill on the apple pulp.

Sadly, a single distill is not the only area in which US apple brandy distillers cut corners. Annie  Proulx and Lew Nichols in Cider: Making, Using & Enjoying Sweet & Hard Cider explain that unlike the French, who have ridged laws concerning where and how Calvados is made, the US has no such guidelines. Coupled with:

“the purposes of supply and marketing economics, apple brandy is a blend of apple and grain neutral spirits. Harry Weiss, in his definitive work, The History of Applejack or Apple Brandy in New Jersey from Colonial Times to the Present (New Jersey Agricultural Society, 1954), puts the reasons in a nutshell – grains return far greater alcohol volume for volume and at a considerably less cost than apples. The Weiss equation holds that two bushels of sound apples are needed to make one gallon of 50 percent apple alcohol, while the same quantity of rye or other small grains will return three gallons of 50 percent, or 100 proof, and corn three and a half gallons with similar strength. Since good apples cost considerably more than grain, pure apple brandy is noncompetitive with grain spirits, and blending the costlier apple with less expensive neutral spirits lessens the disparity at the marketplace” (page 168).

I do not think this was true for Clear Creek Distillery, as they were very proud of their craft liquor, but it is something to be aware of when looking to purchase apple brandy.


4 Responses to “Apple Brandy”

  1. […] Also, don’t feel obliged to serve only wine. Try a sampling of fruit and light beers, cider, or Calvados (which is a little smoother than […]

  2. […] by natives, much like making pulque, but when the Spanish explorers/colonists arrived with their brandy making knowledge, they took it a step further and distilled it, which is how tequila is now […]

  3. […] section is making and flavoring cheeses such as labneh, fresh ricotta, Fontainebleau, camembert au Calvados, blue cheese butter, Gorgonzola torte, and triple crème with walnuts. The rest is for sauces, […]

  4. […] Also new to the top 10 list is a blog on Apple Brandy. […]

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