A Guide to Apple Brandy, America's Oldest Spirit | Wine Enthusiast
Wine bottle illustration Displaying 0 results for
Suggested Searches

A Guide to Apple Brandy, America’s Oldest Spirit

All featured products are independently selected by our editorial team or contributors. Wine Enthusiast does not accept payment to conduct any product review, though we may earn a commission on purchases made through links on this site. Prices were accurate at the time of publication.

Whether you call it applejack, Calvados or bätzi, at its core, apple brandy is any liquor made from fermented and distilled apples.

The category is far more varied than perhaps first meets the eye. There are clear, unaged versions that resemble eau de vie, and amber-hued apple brandies that spend years in oak barrels. Production methods include continuous column stills, copper pot stills and a type of freeze distillation called “jacking.”

The history of apple brandy is fascinating, too, stretching all the way from the 7th-century Silk Road to colonial New Jersey and beyond. Today, the nature of the spirit continues to evolve. In recent years, some U.S. craft distillers have bottled modern apple brandies, iterating on what some consider America’s oldest spirit.

Want to learn more? Here’s everything you need to know.

The History of Apple Brandy

“Any fruit with sufficient natural sugars may be fermented and distilled into brandy,” writes Matthew Rowley in The Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails. He traces the origins of brandies to Uighurs in 7th-century China. Rowley believes that Arab rosewater distillation techniques may have inspired Europeans to try their hands at making brandy from local fruits—including tart cider apples—in the Middle Ages.

But specific references to apple brandy are more recent, Rowley writes. He finds an early mention of Calvados, the apple brandy that hails from Normandy, France, at the start of the 19th century. Meanwhile, bätzi—an apple brandy from Switzerland—is at least a century old, estimates Astrid Gerz, the secretariat of the Swiss Culinary Heritage Association.

U.S. drinkers, however, might be most familiar with applejack, an American-born apple brandy that originated in the late 1600s. One early distiller was Scottish immigrant William Laird, who settled in Monmouth County, New Jersey, and began to produce his own applejack in 1698. Within about a century-and-a-half, the state was dotted in applejack distilleries.

“Applejack is so intertwined in the history of our state,” says Lisa Laird, the chief operating officer and world ambassador of Laird & Company, the New Jersey distillery was founded by William Laird’s descendants in 1780. “If you were a farmer and you had apple trees on your property, you were producing cider spirits or applejack.”

Centuries later, as  the U.S. cocktail culture grew in the early 1900s, applejack was prominent in classic recipes like the Jack Rose. The spirit was so popular, it became a lightning rod in anti-Prohibitionist Edward I. Edward’s 1919 bid for New Jersey governor, dubbed “the applejack campaign.”

Prohibition, however, altered many facets of American life—including applejack production and related agriculture. “A lot of Prohibitionists cut down apple trees, and that’s how we lost a lot of heritage and historical apple varieties,” laments Laird.

After Prohibition was repealed, traditional apple brandy fell out of fashion in the U.S., replaced by other spirits. Some believe that applejack is primed for a resurgence, though, in tandem with the 21st-century cocktail renaissance.

“It’s all word of mouth, and bartenders have been a driving force,” says Laird. “We’re giving a rebirth to this historical spirit.”

Five Types of Apple Brandy

There are several ways that producers around the world and throughout millennia have fermented apples and distilled them into brandy. Here’s a look at five common types.


Historically, applejack was made with North American cider apples and produced through a method called “jacking” or freeze distillation. Distillers freeze hard cider and then discard the ice, so the slushy liquid left over has a higher alcohol content. It was historically drunk fairly soon after distillation.

Modern applejack, in contrast, is typically distilled in column or pot stills and can be aged in barrels or bottled as a young, clear spirit. Laird’s uses a pot still with a rectifying column for its array of applejacks.

Catoctin Creek, a craft distillery in Purcellville, Virginia, makes its aged apple brandy with steam distillation, while Copper & Kings, in Louisville, Kentucky, makes its oak-aged applejack in copper pot stills. Holman’s Distillery in Moravian Falls, North Carolina, uses the traditional freeze distillation method for its applejack, named AppleJohn after founder John Holman.

What’s the difference between applejack and other apple brandies, then? Officially, nothing—but nuances abound.

“Applejack and apple brandy are synonymous if you look at the federal standard of identity,” says Laird. “But the difference is in the apples, the terroir, the aging process and so forth. It’s kind of like if you look at New World versus Old World wine.”


From Switzerland’s Obwalden region comes this clear brandy made from dried apples. Gerz believes that, in the early 1900s, distillers used cores, skins and other parts that would have otherwise been discarded to create the spirit. Now, however, most bätzi distillers use entire apples that are carefully cut, cleaned and dried before they enter the mash for fermentation. Aging processes vary, but the duration usually starts at six months.

Bätzi is closely related to another type of Swiss apple brandy, träsch. The primary difference is that träsch is made with fresh, not dried apples.


An apple brandy with Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) status, Calvados must be made with apples from Normandy, France. The fruit is fermented into cider, distilled into eau-de-vie, and then aged for at least two years in oak barrels. While a small number of pears can be used, the majority of the mix has to come from one of the region’s 200-plus apple varieties.

Calvados is often sipped straight at room temperature, as a digestif. It can also be used in mixed drinks, as in the Prohibition-era Angel Face cocktail or even an elegant Appletini.

Eau-de-Vie de Pomme

Crisp and clear, eau-de-vie is a broad category of brandy that can be made from pretty much any fruit other than grapes. It’s produced in France, Switzerland, Northern Italy, Southern Germany, Austria and other corners of Europe, as well as the U.S.

When the fruit in question is apple, the spirit is called eau-de-vie de pomme. It’s usually served cold and as a digestif, though bartenders also experiment with it in cocktails.

Eau-de-vie is generally unaged. The distillation process depends on the fruit; most eau-de-vie de pomme is made by fermenting apples into cider and then distilling it, often (but not always) in a copper pot still.


This clear, unaged spirit hails from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. As with Calvados, it’s not always exclusively made from apples. Obstler can contain a variety and larger quantities of other fruits in its mix.

Apple-pear obstler is common, but there are also varieties made with apples alongside plums, apricots and cherries.

Like eau-de-vie, it’s usually served chilled and straight after a large meal. It’s not always easy to find obstler in the U.S. But, if history has taught us anything, it’s that apple brandy perseveres—and always finds its audience.

Apple Brandies to Try

1. Catoctin Creek Quarter Branch Virginia Apple Brandy (Virginia, US)

94 Points Wine Enthusiast

Look for a bright topaz hue and a velvety caramel tone on nose and palate. Lush toffee leads into mouthwatering flickers of cocoa and tropical fruit, finishing long with clove and black pepper heat. Blue Bee Cider made the base then Catoctin distilled and aged the liquid. —Kara Newman

$30 Drizly

2. Laird’s 10th Generation Bottled in Bond Aged 5 Years Apple Brandy (New Jersey, US)

3. Hotaling Aged 4 Years Apple Brandy (California, US)

93 Points Wine Enthusiast

Made with California apples, this limited edition brandy was aged for four to eight years in barrels that once held Old Potrero straight rye whiskey. The end result is a golden liquid scented with vanilla and a whiff of fresh-cut red apple. The toasty palate shows vanilla, roasted nuts and a hint of cocoa, with baked apple shining through on a gentle exit edged with lemony acidity. Sip or mix. —K.N.

$45.99 Total Wine & More

4. Laird’s Straight Applejack 86 (New Jersey, US)

94 Points Wine Enthusiast

Bottled at 86 proof (hence the name), this applejack has a copper penny hue and rich brown-sugar scent. Vanilla and caramel tones lead into a cinnamon sting on the tip of the tongue. —K.N.

$37.22 The Whisky Exchange

Join Us on Instagram

See how our customers are using their wine coolers at home.
Follow us @Wineenthusiast | Show us your #WineEnthusiastLife