A Northwest Apple Brandy History
by Charles West
APPLE BRANDY…it’s a fine, elegant spirit that embodies a delightful spectrum of appearance, aroma and flavor from the crystal clear essence of apple found in un-aged Eau de Vie to a smooth, sophisticated, deep amber after it’s carefully aged. It is a spirit reminiscent of a fine cognac. But, in the times in which we live apple brandy is not common. It is America’s lost spirit that a few intrepid farm distillers here in the Northwest are rediscovering.
For a distiller to say, “I make apple brandy,” is a simple statement that has a very complex and fascinating history in this country. It is a history intertwined with the history of cider that, not coincidentally, has a great deal to do with the history of the islands here in the Northwest corner of the State of Washington at the very edge of the continental United States.
When you are talking about apples, there is one basic rule –where there are apples there is cider, and apple brandy is not far behind. Over a hundred years ago, here in Washington’s San Juan Islands there were certainly enough apples.
Bustling communities such as Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia and Port Townsend had grown up on the shores of the inland waterway known as Puget Sound. Railways and highways had yet to come to this part of the world, so commerce took to the water. Known as the Mosquito Fleet, privately owned ships of all shapes and sizes made regular stops at every waterfront dock in the sound.
The need to find a large, reliable source of fresh fruits and vegetables to feed the exploding populations of the young cities was critical. As a farming and orchard region, the islands north of Seattle were particularly attractive. Just an easy day’s voyage from the city, the islands boasted a mild climate, good soil and many protected deepwater coves and inlets.
In 1891 The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported on, “The Archipeligo de Haro A Lovely Garden Spot in the Straits of Fuca.” It said, “…islands which lie in the waters of the Archipelago de Haro, commonly called, in post office parlance, San Juan County” were especially beautiful and went on to describe the island on which this author lives, “Orcas, the next island in population on account of its scenery and fruit farms, is the best known island of the group.”
Orcas Island was the home of many orchards and fruit farms. Every day in the harvest season of1898 boxes of fruit sailed from five different docks on the island. At the state standard of forty pounds per box, that years total of 160,000 boxes of apples was equal to six million four hundred thousand pounds of apples!
A decade later, in the year 1909, at the height of its fruit industry, the orchards of Orcas Island boasted 76,731 apple trees.
A well known botanist and prolific author, Liberty Hyde Bailey, named more than 41 varieties of apples grown here that bore such exotic names as Red Astrachan, Blue Pearmain, Reinette, Blenheim, Jersey Black and Paradise Winter Sweet to name just a few. Bailey envisioned a vibrant agricultural community with a city of 60,000 inhabitants at its center. It would an island that would rival successful island communities of Jersey and Guernsey in the English Channel.
From the mind of
an apple grower
By J.k. Fox
The complex, migration-themed history of the apple was what pomologist Richard Anderson, San Juan Island WA, encountered when the siren of apple cider began to call his name in the early Nineties. From central Asia to Europe and finally to the States in the pockets of hopeful settlers, the roots of the apple run deep and far. The complexity of this can muddy the supposed clarity of words like “heritage” and “traditional”, words that form the current currency of craft based, “old-school” pressing, brewing and distilling. After all what does “heritage” really mean when you’re essentially dealing with an agricultural import?
In the Nineties however, Anderson was dealing with a pre-craft distilling idiom, and as such was free to simply look to the best cider around. For him, that meant southern England. He read a variety of books, navigating those pre-Amazon days by sending envelopes of pounds sterling to obscure publishers in England. He learned the vocabulary of “sweet”, “bitter sweet”, and “bitter sharp”, and the golden rule that a quality cider will always be a blend, not a single varietal product. Mostly he learned the subversive quality of the cider apple, diverging as it does from the culturally acceptable red or green desert apples, “My take away was you can make cider from any apples but good cider was made from the tannic, nasty inedible ones”. Then with typical pioneering, west coast spirit he thought “well, I could probably do it better than the English.”
Anderson’s orchard grows approximately fourteen different apple species, each adding its own edge to his cider. He drops apple names and personalities into his sentences like a well-connected socialite discussing the “must have” people at the party. Below are some of his most successful apples, if you are a beginner in the world of apples, take note.
Kingston black: Bitter Sharp. It’s a very good one. It’s probably one of the only apples that has the balance of acidity and tannins to make a single variety cider. It’s not a productive apple tree.
Dabinett: Bitter Sweet. Anderson says “We have these because we could get these”. They are nice tannic apple. They don’t have any acidity in them. It’s a nice apple for the grower because it is easy to grow. It is annual. A lot of these apples are bi-annual which causes problems.
Harry Masters: bitter sweet. Does what it says.
Yarlington Mills: Bitter sweet. This is Anderson’s favorite, they are pretty and the trees bare every year and are thus reliable. “Ours get an orangey blush, they are gorgeous” says Anderson.
Porter’s perfection: Bitter sharp. This is your turn-to apple for acidity.
Sweet Coppin: Sweet. They are not bad. They are the ONLY sweet Anderson has and he treats them like seasoning. The Coppin keeps the cider from being TOO acid or tannin. Think of it as sugar sprinkled on top.
Vilberie: Bitter Sweet. This is a bi annual you bite into this, you know you have a tannic apple!
Just ten years later in 1919 a third of those trees, more than 25,000, had been destroyed. The vibrant agricultural community envisioned by Liberty Bailey reverted to a sleepy rural hamlet of loggers and fishermen.
To some extent, what happened here on Orcas was the evolution of a process of the pioneering and settling of his continent that began in the original colonies two hundred years before agriculture came to Orcas.
We’ve all heard of Johnny Appleseed and some of you may have read Michael Pollan’s book Botany of Desire. Apples accompanied the first colonists as they set foot on this continent and apples travelled west with almost any pioneer that planned both figuratively and literally to put down roots on the new continent. Apples travelled with the newcomers from the colonies, to the Ohio Valley, and then westward along the Oregon Trail to Fort Vancouver—today’s Vancouver Washington—then up the coast into the Oregon territory and the Archipelago de Haro, today known as the State of Washington and the San Juan Islands.
For those pioneers lucky enough to receive a land grant under the Homestead Act, planting trees, particularly apple trees, was an important step in proving up on the land and eventually receiving a deed. The figures that I’ve seen indicate that a typical homesteader would plant six trees for the personal use of every member in his household. Six trees? Now, that’s a lot of trees for a big farm family.
On standard rootstock, a mature tree can easily produce four hundred pounds of apples. A pioneer orchard could produce more than a ton of apples per person per year….that’s a lot of apple pies and apple sauce.
But, those apples weren’t for eating. They were for drinking. Early Americans drank cider and they drank a lot of cider. Prior to refrigeration, the cider would ferment from naturally occurring yeasts. The bi-product of fermentation is alcohol. Americans were drinking hard cider. They drank hard cider everyday, all day. Even our second president, John Adams took a tankard when he awoke every morning. Americans would keep on drinking hard cider right up until the beginning of prohibition.
There was a reason for drinking cider. While the first settlers were unfamiliar with the theory of germs, they knew that water could be bad and they were right. Parasites, bacteria or protozoa like giardia were all real threats until the coming of community water treatment and distribution systems in the mid-1800s.
Where there is hard cider, apple brandy is not far behind. Not only did early Americans drink prodigious quantities of cider, the offering of a good, aged apple brandy to afternoon visitors was the sign of a gracious host. The Colonial Williamsburg Journal reports that by 1790 the average per capita for adults of fifteen years in age or older was 34 gallons of cider or beer, 5 gallons of distilled spirits and one gallon of wine.
Of course, cider and apple brandy weren’t all that Americans were drinking. The cultivation of sugar in the late sixteen hundreds brought rum to the coastal colonies of America and slaves to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean..
Soon after the introduction of rum, early Scots-Irish immigrants brought the knowledge and skill to make whisky from grain. Later European immigrants brought the know how to brew a better tasting beer.
By 1830, the average per capita consumption for anyone fifteen and older had increased to 7 gallons of pure alcohol per year. Now, that’s some serious drinking. 8% alcohol for cider or beer would mean 175 gallons a year or almost 90 fifth size bottles of 80 proof distilled spirits.
Cider continued to be a very popular drink, especially in rural America and on the frontier. In 1840 William Henry Harrison won the presidency in a landslide. He campaigned as the log cabin and hard cider candidate. His campaign workers served hard cider to anyone who wanted it, and more than a little hard cider was consumed at that year’s convention.
By 1880 there were approximately 8000 distilleries nationwide for a population of 50.2 million citizens. By way of comparison, today as of 2015 we have 588 distilleries for a population of 320 million…and 326 of today’s distilleries have gone into business since 2011. On average our per capita consumption of alcohol today is one third of what it was in the 1880s.
But, back in the early years of the nation attitudes began to change. In hindsight we could say with some accuracy that a little temperance wouldn’t be a bad idea. From the 1830s on, the Temperance Movement grew. Eventually temperance became intemperate as the Temperance Movement blamed alcohol consumption for all social ills—poverty, crime, broken families, and violence.
As the drumbeat for prohibition grew louder, newspapers shouted, “cut down the apple trees, taboo the big red apple and make the having in possession a cider press a criminal offence…”.
Cider and Brandy were vilified, “It Is sold In Jugs, carried across fields In Jugs and drunk from Jugs, gurgling as It goes on Its sinister errand. It makes first drunkards. It Is the last resort of drunkards. It brings with It rheumatism, sciatica, hardening of the arteries, delirium tremens and death. It burns down houses, breaks up homes, lets crops rot In the field and turns shotguns on neighbors. It does not need to be mixed with whiskey, thereby becoming "stone fence," Beelzebub does not need to be accompanied by a minor fiend.”
At the same time as temperance was growing as a national movement, Orcas Island was developing as a vibrant fruit growing community with apples as its primary export. But, the apples were cider apples. Sharp, sometimes bitter, they were often russet apples. Certainly not the perfect colors and shapes of apples we find in the supermarket today. But, they made great cider and even greater brandy.
In 1914, just five years after the peak of Orcas Island’s apple production, Washington passed its first prohibition laws, two years later Washington was a dry state. With competing orchard communities developing east of the Cascade Mountains, there was a glut of apples. Prices plummeted. Times grew hard for orchard owners. Soft drink salesmen in the cities who let their cider ferment beyond one percent could count on spending time in jail
Temperance was more than just a movement to curtail alcohol consumption. It had its roots in rural protestant communities and was a response to perceived social evils of the time. It was also an anti-urban and xenophobic movement. It struck out against the perceived dangers of waves of immigrants crowding into the filth and chaos of the nation’s cities. Temperance grew fastest in farm communities. By the time that the vote came for prohibition and the 18th Amendment, the rural nation won the day. Big cities voted against it, the countryside voted for it. In Washington Seattle, Spokane and Tacoma voted no by more than a two thirds majority. In San Juan County, a county that depended on the sale of its cider apples for income, Prohibition almost passed. Forty seven percent of the voters voted for Prohibition.
With passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919 , the nation was officially dry. The Volstead Act in 1920 enforced the Amendment. It said that any substance containing more than one half of one percent alcohol was considered intoxicating and illegal.
Apple trees were looked upon as a source of alcohol. There are reports that Federal agents actually went into orchards and cut down trees to prevent the manufacture of cider or alcohol. Even sweet cider—non-alcoholic cider—was regulated for fear that it would ferment and become alcoholic. By law an orchard could produce no more than two hundred gallons a year of sweet cider…not much if you’re trying to make a living.
Companies like Motts, now known for its apple sauce, had to get bonds and Revenue Service Permits even though it produced what was called preserved sweet cider that added sodium benzoate to its juice to kill yeast… just on the chance that its juice might ferment before it could be preserved.
The end was in sight for the orchards of Orcas Island. Four years after the passage of the Volstead Act and just 15 years after the high point of the Orcas Apple industry, almost sixty percent of the trees were gone. The Orchard industry never recovered.
East of the mountains, the apple industry managed to survive Prohibition by concentrating on a few sweet varietals and reinventing the apple as a healthy snack and dessert…An apple a day keeps the doctor away…
Now, one hundred years after the State of Washington went dry, cider is reemerging as an American beverage. In fact it’s the fastest growing segment of the fermented beverage market. In the distilling world a handful of adventurous distillers are once again producing elegant brandies. But, even today there is a problem, residue left over from the national social experiment one hundred years ago, even today there aren’t enough cider apples to meet the growing demand.