His memories in a trunk

Reflections on literature, language(s), and music

On applejack

I’ve recently finished reading The Sun also Rises. There are a great many references to drinking, mostly wine in prodigious amounts, but also beer and Pernod. At least twice someone drinks a Jack Rose cocktail, which was unknown to me, so like a worthy explorer I looked around and found that the recipe’s main (in fact, only) alcohol is applejack, the old American colonial concoction made by freeze-distilling (hard) cider, that is, in wintertime gradually removing the chunks of ice that form in it, thus reducing its water component and strengthening everything else, including, of course, the alcoholic content. (I recall from Botany of Desire the observation that apples have not always had the predominant flavors they now have, and cider then and cider now, and by extension any applejack transmogrified therefrom, wouldn’t necessarily taste the same.) While I live in Minnesota, and could conceivably make my own applejack the old-fashioned way — assuming we actually have a proper winter next season — using some good natural hard cider (such as Crispin), it’s good to know that liquor stores also carry it already made, but given its comparative unknownness, it might take some hunting around to find. I don’t know how many brands produce applejack, but Laird’s seems to be the most widely available. According to the bottle’s label, William Laird first made a batch of it in 1698 in Monmouth, New Jersey. Laird & Co. is now in Scobeyville of the same state. Their product is said to have the residuum of six pounds of apples in every bottle, and it’s eighty proof. I’ve not tried it in any cocktail yet, or on ice, only a few sips neat. The first encounter is, of course, olfactory, one vaguely of American whiskey but with an unmistakeable overtone (not undertone) of apples. The taste, in my limited experience with it so far, at least, has sweetness, to be sure, but not too much, and its ease of potation belies, I suspect, its alcoholic strength.

Since applejack has some history to it, I thought it might be worthwhile to make a foray into some possible witnesses to its history. I’m somewhat surprised to find no reference to the libation in two dipsological books I have to hand, Kingsley Amis’ Everyday Drinking and Iain Gately’s Drink. Thanks, though, to Archive.org and Google Books, we all have impossibly voluminous libraries at our ready disposal, so I went to the latter to plunder it. The potion was known also by the names of Dew of the Orchard and Jersey Lightning, as we learn from History of the 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers Corn Exchange Regiment from their Engagement at Antietam to Appomattox (1905), p. 543. There are several other mentions of applejack in Civil War memoirs and stories. As soldiers traveled to parts of the country they’d never visited before, they learned of new local drinks, and in some places that meant applejack. One can easily imagine some folk song about applejack — along the the lines of the ecumenical (“Throw away your pills; it’ll cure all ills // Of pagan or Christian or Jew”) “Mountain Dew” for poitín; there’s another song of the same name on an analogous drink with a wholly different melody and lyrics performed by Flatt & Scruggs and perhaps others — but I’ve not come across one yet. George Arnold wrote a several-versed poem in approval of the drink (in Poems Grave and Gay, 1867, see here). Jerome Watrous’ little story “That Applejack Raid”, in Richard Epps and Other Stories (1906), pp. 138-141, has a bit on the drink. Information with an official air include a lengthy letter sent to the New York Times on applejack that was reprinted in the Internal Revenue Record and Customs Journal 25 (1879), pp. 314-315, and in journal published in London we see that the drink attracted attention not only in America: The Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry 12 (1893), pp. 169-170. Into the 20th century, St. Louis mixologist Thomas Bullock’s Ideal Bartender (1917) has at least three cocktails with applejack (I’ll certainly try the Applejack Sour).

There’s a nice post on applejack at the Cocktail Chronicles, complete with an excellent old advertisement and a sensational warning on the madness sure to consume anyone whose palate the beguiling drink bathes, and at least one of the currently available books for cider-making has some information on applejack: Anne Proulx and Lew Nichols, Cider. It’s clear from these resources, nineteenth-century to recent, that applejack was once an often drunk American drink, at least in some regions of the country. There’s no indication that it will any time soon return to its former notoriety, but the odd tippler may find it a worthwhile diversion or accompaniment.

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