Every culture has its traditional alcoholic beverage of choice, but it has little to do with taste. For the vast majority of recorded history, people simply drank what they had on hand; whatever crops were in abundance where they happened to live found their way into the still. For Colonial-era and early American settlers, that crop was apples.
By now you've probably at least heard of the apple brandy Laird's Applejack, that most American of spirits — how it was George Washington's tipple of choice, how William Laird first produced it in New Jersey in 1698, how his great-grandson Robert Laird secured America's first distilling license in 1780, or how it's used in the classic cocktail the Jack Rose, all of which has been thoroughly documented by spirits writers far and wide. Slightly lesser known is a variation sold today as Laird's Bottled in Bond Straight Apple Brandy, which has recently started to make its way onto the shelves of Boston bars.
The "Bottled in Bond" on its label refers to a set of rules outlined in the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, which aimed to prevent the watering down of spirits — in other words, to help ensure a bottle labeled and sold as straight whiskey actually was straight whiskey, not a concoction flavored and colored with substances like, say, tobacco or acid. In this case, it amounts to an applejack that is 100 proof and 100 percent apple brandy, unlike the typical 80-proof applejack, which is blended with a neutral-spirit base. The result is a more assertive apple profile with a bit more heat, as well as subtle caramel and spice that makes it perfect for mixing in fall cocktails.
"I like it a lot because I feel like it brings more depth than the original, being that it's higher proof. It seems to be smoother, with a lot more apple flavor coming out," says Troy Clarke of Cambridge's ArtBar, where the spirit is showcased in the Hangtown Dream, along with Pisco Portón, green-apple shrub, acid phosphate, and Green Chartreuse. It's an extraordinarily contemplative cocktail, with loads of green apple and grape, plus a slight tart pucker on the palate from the acid phosphate and vinegar that inspires introspection with each sip.
Darren Swisher of the South End's Kitchen says the more widely available applejack is better suited for mixing shaken drinks with citrus, like the Jack Rose. "But for stirred, straight-spirit drinks, I think it comes up a little short," he says. "You just get a better quality" with the bonded applejack, which takes 20 pounds of apples per bottle to produce. "The apples really come through. You get a fruity apple quality, but it's still dry; that's unique."
He recommends trying it in his variation on the American Trilogy cocktail from New York City's Little Branch bar. Instead of Rittenhouse, Swisher uses Old Overholt rye, which is lower proof and sweeter, making it better suited for mixing with the bonded applejack, orange bitters, and a rich sugar, either brown or Demerara. You might also try it in a Diamondback; originated by famed Seattle bartender Murray Stenson, it's a surprisingly simple mix of bonded rye, applejack, and Green Chartreuse that yields a complex and lovely flavor.
For drinks like those, you're going to need a truly assertive and complex spirit. The bonded applejack, which feels closer to a whiskey than a brandy, certainly fits the bill. "It's almost a different spirit altogether," Swisher says. "To use a bad fruit pun, it's like apples and oranges."
Or apples and other, more interesting apples.
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