If you’re a fan of hard apple cider but don’t think it’s quite hard enough, consider going the brandy route. There’s no better place to start than with Calvados, the centuries-old French apple brandy, and applejack, its American-born cousin which holds the impressive distinction of being George Washington’s drink of choice.
But before we get to the main event and compare these two storied spirits, let’s quickly cover the undercard and answer the question: What’s the difference between applejack and domestically produced plain ol’ apple brandy? Absolutely nothing. Told you it would be quick.
“Apple brandy and applejack are synonymous by their federal standard of identity,” says Lisa Laird Dunn, Vice President and World Ambassador to Laird & Company, America’s oldest government licensed distillery and the nation’s foremost producer of apple-based spirits.
Just like pop and soda or Ye and Kanye, applejack and apple brandy are interchangeable. Either name can legally be applied to any spirit that is distilled using 100 percent apples–whole fruit or simply the juice.
Which brings us to the 1960s, when Americans (foolishly) began to fall out of love with brown spirits including apple brandy. According to Dunn, in an effort to combat sagging sales, Laird & Company petitioned the U.S. government to create a federal standard of identity for a lighter variation of applejack that could be distilled with neutral grain spirits. Enter “blended applejack” which received official designation in 1972.
In the ensuing years, blended applejack became synonymous with applejack despite the fact that it is not actually applejack (or apple brandy).
Another common misconception is that applejack is exclusively produced through freeze distillation. Back in the early colonial days, fermented cider was left out in the cold and subsequently concentrated through freezing or “jacking”–ergo, applejack. It wouldn’t be long before modern distilling became the norm (a handful of distillers continue to use the traditional method), but the name applejack stuck and continues to cause confusion to this very day.
The name Calvados, however, isn’t nearly as complicated. It refers to the region in Normandy where it is produced. Like Champagne or Tequila, Calvados only comes from its namesake, which is home to over 800 varieties of apples.
More specifically, production of the spirit is spread across three separate appellations (A.O.C. Calvados where the majority of the spirit is produced; A.O.C. Pays d’Auge, home to several high-end producers; and A.O.C. Domfrontais, which we’ll get to shortly), each with its own set of regulations. Unlike applejack, which isn’t required to be aged a single day, Calvados needs to spend a minimum of two to three years in oak barrels. The spirit must contain 100 percent fruit, but pears can be substituted for a portion of apples. In fact, Calvados Domfrontais contains at least 30 percent locally-sourced pears.
When it comes to taste, comparing Calvados to applejack can be difficult considering all the varying factors in their respective productions. Calvados primarily takes advantage of bitter cider apples, which are prominent in the region, while applejack has a reputation for being sweeter, the result of using more common, edible varieties of the fruit.
Barrel type plays an important role in imparting specific flavor profiles. Applejack often spends time aging in used bourbon barrels, which lend notes of burnt caramel, vanilla, and spice. French oak largely takes center stage in Normandy. A single batch of Calvados can spend time in multiple barrels new and old to balance levels of oakiness and tannins that the wood provides.
Then there’s aging, which in the case of spirits, is often a good thing. The apple characteristics slowly fade, the rough edges begin to smooth, as a deeper, more complex spirit evolves. Older vintages should be designated as straight sippers. Applejack, which tends to outweigh Calvados in the ABV department, is ideal for mixing in classic cocktails such as an old fashioned, Manhattan, and, of course, the Jack Rose.
While both Calvados and applejack have withstood the test of time, they continue to fight for mainstream acceptance. A substantial gap separates Calvados from the grape-based ‘gnacs on the French brandy hierarchy. And despite applejack’s illustrious place in U.S. history, its name is currently more closely associated with one of the characters from “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.”
But like the fall leaves, that all seems to be changing. Thanks to New York City hotspot Frenchette, Calvados and tonic vied for cocktail of the summer honors while production of applejack continues to spike across the U.S. with new distilleries such as Arkansas Black and Harvest Spirits Farm producing highly regarded versions of the American classic. Even the old-timers are getting back in the game. Last October, Laird & Company released their long-awaited Straight Applejack 86, a faithful recreation of the fruits of the distillery’s labor from pre- and post-Prohibition days.
“Consumers’ tastes are cyclical,” says Dunn. And right now, apple brandy is having a moment–again.