Apple Spirits Return to the Northeast

by Christopher Carlsson

The press is quiet until fall. PHOTO ©christoper carlsson

The press is quiet until fall. PHOTO ©christoper carlsson

We take great pride in the fruit that we grow, and in the fact that we are a TRUE craft beverage maker. We own the land, we grow the fruit, ferment, distill, and bottle it here on site.
— Dave Defisher

Apple spirits such as applejack, apple brandy and pommeau have teetered on the brink of extinction until recently revived by a renewed interest in classic cocktails and a growing popular new cocktail culture.

Eclipsed by a variety of other spirits and nearly destroyed by Prohibition, few bartenders knew how to use apple spirits in a drink or even thought to stock them. Apple spirits became specialty spirits, no longer the popular beverage of Colonial America. Prior to the coming of the cocktail culture and the renaissance of craft distilling, only one company of hundreds of former distillers, Laird’s in Colts Neck, New Jersey, survived to persevere in the production of aged apple brandy.

Laird’s still carries on a tradition that began in 1780 at a time in this nation’s history when distillation of apples was the preferred method of spirit production. Apples and other fruit were the logical choice for distillation in the infant nation and the early colonies. It was a time when cereal grains were in short supply and were used for bread. Grain was smaller and easier to store or preserve than fruits.

Today Laird’s is no longer alone. The search for innovative spirits, the recognition of the bartender as a culinary craftsman, even the rise of consumer demand for gluten free spirits have combined to drive the market for apple spirits. For orchard owners, apple spirits provide a new opportunity and entirely new outlet for their produce. In the northeast, a traditional home of apple growing, several growers have taken up the challenge of launching distilleries.

One new distillery is Apple Country Spirits of Williamson New York. Owned by the DeFisher family who are long time orchardists, the distillery is set on an orchard of approximately 500 acres of fruit trees, comprising of apple, cherries, peach and pear trees, with a smattering of other species. Primarily a fruit growing concern, the family branched into distilling to vertically integrate and monetize their products, as well as to control and diversify their market.

Pot Still make the best apple brandy. PHOTO ©CHRISTOPER CARLSSON

Pot Still make the best apple brandy. PHOTO ©CHRISTOPER CARLSSON

Dave Defisher says he got into distilling as a business proposition that sounded like a good idea and a moneymaker. But, he says, "We take great pride in the fruit that we grow, and in the fact that we are a TRUE craft beverage maker. We own the land, we grow the fruit, ferment, distill, and bottle it here on site.”

Apple Country uses a mix of dessert apples that provide a higher alcohol yield, and some heritage apples that have more flavor. They make a cider to distill as a base for their spirits and they make a mash to distill for their eau de vie. The cider has an average of five varieties of apples. All of the apples are handpicked. Ground drops are not used. The cider is fermented at around 65 degrees Fahrenheit or less for a seven to ten day period. Their distillation calendar starts with harvest in the fall and continues until the spring when it gets too hot to maintain a slow fermentation.

Apple Country sells its spirits as un-aged applejack, or it ages it in used bourbon barrels. The distillery currently offers a two-year-old apple brandy, and will be releasing a three and a four year old in the near future. The production style is geared towards making a product that is similar to an old style American apple brandy.

Collin McConville is the distiller at Apple Country.  He says he got into distilling after, “I graduated from Niagara University with a degree in History and a minor in Philosophy, at that time, not the best choices of a degree. While I was beating away job offers with a stick I started working at one of the first Farm Distilleries in New York State—Harvest Spirits. I worked there for several years, getting my feet wet in all aspects of the business, including sales, and eventually moved on to head up Apple Country Spirits."

"What do I enjoy most about this and why do I do it? At the end of the day, there are two things that I enjoy most about this. First is the idea that someone will take home something I make and will enjoy it.  Second is the sense of adventure I get when I am trying to come up with something new. Whenever we take on a new project it is always an adventure -- because nothing ever comes out how you expect it. “

this spirit vault holds only one spirit. PHOTO ©CHRISTOPER CARLSSON

this spirit vault holds only one spirit. PHOTO ©CHRISTOPER CARLSSON

Prior to building the distillery, Apple Country was wholesaling its fruit to multiple layers of buyers who resold it for significant markups. To better utilize their products and capture a bigger market share, the DeFishers decided that distilling would produce spirits that could be sold wholesale for higher margins. Easier and cheaper to store than fruit, spirits enabled them to offer retail sales, both by the bottle and as cocktails at their tasting room/bar, directly to consumers. Their tasting room is open to the public where their products can be sampled and purchased along with other New York State produced spirits, wine, beer and merchandise.  The bar sells the same products in cocktails, and offers occasional catered dinners and celebrations.  Now a tourist destination, they also rent out parts of their farm for gatherings such as weddings and meetings.

Using its own apples reduces the distillery’s carbon footprint, and a solar power array provides about 85 to 90 of its electrical needs. The left over pomace—apple solids—goes to a local dairy farmer for feed and the spent cider is used as fertilizer.

For farmers turned distillers like Apple Country, there are many advantages. Farm distilling vertically integrates production. Raw materials, the apples, cost less with no middleman or profit margins to pay, and the apples are directly processed into a value added product. As a farm distiller, Apple Country can use fruit that is sound but not cosmetically attractive instead of selling it for pennies to commercial processors.

Apple Country already has much of the equipment and infrastructure for handling large quantities of apples. It has the hammer mills, fruit press, forklifts, and warehouse space along with working skills and knowledge of to set up a distillery.

Although Westford Hills Distillers of Ashford CT also grows its own apples, it has developed an entirely different business model than Apple Country’s. While Apple Country is relatively new, Westford Hills is one of the oldest craft distillers. It was founded in 1997, and has been distilling for about 15 years of distilling.

Apple Country is one of the new generation of distilleries made possible by the reforms of New York State’s distilling laws that can both wholesale and retail its products. Located in Connecticut, Westford Hills is not licensed to sell directly to the public. It wholesales its spirits to retail outlets and restaurants in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Not open for daily tours, nor operating a tasting room, bar or gift shop, the distillery holds an open house a few times a year.

Owned by Louis and Margaret Chatey, Westford Hills was created to produce fine apple brandies. First, the Chateys travelled to the Alsace Lorraine region of France to learn distilling. Located on the Eastern border of France adjacent to Germany, Alsace uses a mash of fruit in its distilling similar to the distilleries central European unlike the Calvados of Normandy that is produced from cider.

Impressed with the quality of apples in the Northeast, the Chatey’s brought their new skills to home to Connecticut and then consulted with Thomas Burford a noted pomologist who was also instrumental in restoring many of the heirloom varieties at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.  With Burford’s help the Chateys chose the varietals that today supply the distillery from the 200 acres of apples grown on their own farm. They also buy apples from local farmers with whom they have long-term relationships.

Unlike many distillers of apple spirits, the Chatey’s employ techniques that are most like a winemaker rather than a whiskey distiller. While Louis Chatey studied music in college he worked as a wine specialist for a local distributor and later when on to work for the big California vintner Sebastiani. He developed a passion for distilling while retaining a strong background in winemaking. He says, "The first step in great brandy making is great wine making"

At Westford Hills each variety of apple is mashed in a hammer mill separately.  The mashes are not blended. Each individual mash ferments for two to three weeks, and is then distilled separately. The individual distillations are aged separately in medium char white wine barrels. Only after each variety has aged are they finally blended together for the signature Westford Hills Apple Brandy.

"Apple Brandy making is in large part an exercise in blending. To date, of the many varieties we’ve worked with, no one has presented itself with all the attributes of aroma, palate complexity and finish, it takes careful selection to create that complete dimension," says Chatey.

When asked about aging and his philosophy of brandy making, Chatey said, "Westford Hill Distillers has no plans to release a apple brandy less than 14 years aged, we waited 8 years for our initial release and are dedicated to elevating the heritage by bringing to market the best brandy we can. This is about proper aging not speed oaking and bourbon barrels"

"Westford Hill Distillers 18 years ago was one of the first of the craft distillers to begin work in recreating American Apple Brandy, there was no template in selection of apple varieties. Each variety is fermented, distilled and oak aged separately to gain an understanding of where they might have a place in a blend. With the wealth of different apple varieties available to us here in the Northeast we are still in our infancy in assessing which make the best brandy. Talk to us in 200 years. "

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