America's Spirit: Applejack 

Glory in moderation with these two historic cocktails

With an endorsement from George Washington and Johnny Appleseed, what more do you need?

Harrison Berry

With an endorsement from George Washington and Johnny Appleseed, what more do you need?

What jazz is to American music, applejack is to American booze. You can be excused if you've never heard of it, let alone tried it. The distinctive apple brandy is often grouped on liquor store shelves with miscellaneous aperitifs, cordials and mixing spirits home drinkers don't have a clue what to do with. Nonetheless, its pedigree goes back to pre-Revolutionary War times, and the Laird family of New Jersey.

Applejack enters popular history with Robert Laird, a Revolutionary War soldier serving under then-General George Washington. Under Washington's influence, the product was a tipple of choice for colonial troops—Johnny Appleseed was even known to promote applejack consumption. When Laird & Company was officially bonded in 1780, it became the first commercial distillery in the United States.

Applejack in cocktails is equally storied. One once-popular concoction is the Stone Fence (or Stone Wall). Some sources describe the drink as a mixture of 2 ounces of rum in a pint glass filled with ice and hard cider, and the recipe (sans ice) is traced back to a drinking bout held on May 9, 1775 by Revolutionary War leader Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys.

As the story goes, Allen's soldiers decamped at the Catamount Tavern in Vermont on their way to attacking Fort Ticonderoga in New York. They spent the evening fortifying themselves with liquid courage—specifically, a grip of hard cider spiked with rum.

However, in the spirit of autumn's abundance of apple flavors, we opted to swap out the rum for applejack. We think Washington himself would approve, as the Laird family applejack recipe was used by the first president of the United States to craft his own version of "cyder spirits," which suggests the commander in chief was also the Stone Fence mixologist in chief.

Fast forward a few hundred years to the early 1900s to find another applejack cocktail freighted with history—though not quite so patriotic. A combination of 2 oz. Laird's applejack ($21.95), ¾ oz. grenadine, ¾ oz. lemon juice, 1 dash of bitters and a lemon twist served in a martini glass is the Jack Rose, named for the eponymous New Yorker who, Esquire tells us, handled the contract to plug a small-time hustler named Herman Rosenthal four times in the head on July 13, 1912.

Rose rose to prominence during the ensuing trial, in which he was the star witness testifying that an anti-gambling detective actually committed the murder. The frame-up was a success: The detective was executed and the participants in the plot went on to successful careers in the news media and political office. Rose, meanwhile, became a caterer, in which role he's thought to have invented his signature cocktail.

We put the Stone Fence and Jack Rose head-to-head to see which makes the best use of applejack, America's original spirit.

Stone Fence

To quote Henry David Thoreau, "Simplify, simplify." The Stone Fence lives up to the American philosopher's directive with a straightforward method: applejack and hard cider. The combination is, simply, a delight. We mixed ours with Boise-based Meriwether Cider's Strong Arm Semi-Sweet ($6.59 for a 22 oz. bottle), which gave the drink a delicate, decidedly un-syrupy sweetness. The resulting combination is the essence of apple, with a zesty mouthfeel and clean finish, perfect for pre-meal sipping or an afternoon on the patio. The delicacy of the drink belies its wallop: There's nothing but booze in a Stone Fence (40 percent alcohol by volume for the applejack and 6.9 percent ABV for the cider), so proceed with the kind of moderation the Founding Fathers would have recommended.

Jack Rose

Featuring both grenadine and aromatic bitters (we used Angostura, which costs $6.99 for a 4 oz. bottle at WinCo), the Jack Rose has to be meticulously mixed—the slightest imbalance in either ingredient will send the entire drink down the drain in the kitchen sink. Properly balanced, though, the Jack Rose is as surprising as finding out you've been framed for murder. Alternately sweet and tart, the pink-hued drink is far drier than it looks. While grenadine can drag a drink into syrupy stickiness, the applejack lifts it up to highlight the citrus notes. This would be great+ with a steak, which is about as high a compliment as we can give a cocktail.

Bottoms Up

While the majority of our tasting panel found the Stone Fence brighter, more sociable and approachable than the finicky Jack Rose, both drinks have great merits—owing in large part to the mere inclusion of applejack, which seems to offer an able assist to anything it's mixed with. It's a moderator and supporter of its counterparts, which, in this time of dire political strife, we think is befitting of the finest American traditions—both in the glass and at the ballot box.

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