I’m not usually a fan of seasonally appropriate cocktails. Give me a mai tai on a frozen night in January, or a hot toddy to sip by the pool in July, and I’m a happy camper. I also detest holidays that mandate drinking certain spirits. I’ll have tequila pretty much any day except Cinco de Mayo, and I make sure to steer clear of Irish whiskey on St. Patrick’s Day. But cynical contrarian though I am, there’s one seasonally appropriate cocktail that I look forward to drinking every autumn, and which, over the last several years, has become an essential part of the Thanksgiving ritual around my house — well, my in-laws’ house, where we gather every year. The Apple Brandy Old Fashioned is autumn in a glass, packing the best flavors of a bright and chilly November day in New England into a cocktail that’s as easy to make as it is to drink.
The first step is to score some apple brandy. My brand of choice is Tamworth Distilling’s Tamworth Garden VSOP expression, made from apples harvested in Concord, NH, at one of America’s oldest existing orchards. It’s double-distilled in a traditional alembic still and bottled in bond, a categorization that usually applies to whiskey. This means the brandy has been distilled entirely in one six-month distilling season at a single distillery; aged at least four years under federal supervision; and bottled at exactly 100 proof. It’s quite dry — apple meets leather and dry oak, with some cinnamon and other baking spices thrown in — and I find it an impossibly elegant sipper as well as a great component in an Old Fashioned.
Tamworth Garden can be tough to find, so in a pinch I’d recommend Laird & Co’s bottled-in-bond expression. Laird’s is the oldest surviving distillery in the U.S., having cranked out applejack and apple brandy from its base in New Jersey since 1780, save for a brief pause during Prohibition. Laird’s may be a smidge less complex than Tamworth’s, but it’s still delicious and well worth picking up (they also have a five-year-old bonded apple brandy called Tenth Generation, which I have yet to try). And if you want something just as tasty but less boozy, the French distillery Boulard produces some excellent calvados (French for “apple brandy,” at least in practice) at a gentler 40% ABV.
Next up — maple syrup, to stand in for the sugar normally found in an Old Fashioned. And I’m not talking Mrs. Butterworth. This is a cocktail we’re making, not Eggo waffles. Get yourself a high-quality syrup. I personally use WhistlePig’s syrup, aged in their own rye whiskey barrels. The syrup itself comes from the folks at Runamok, and they’ve got some excellent ones, barrel-aged and otherwise, under their own name. They even have some maple-based cocktail syrup/mixers, including one for an Old Fashioned, but for our purposes, the straight maple syrup is all you need.
Lastly, the bitters. You can use standard Angostura bitters and have a fine cocktail, but for our purposes I recommend Fee Brothers’ black walnut bitters. I mean, come on, apples and walnuts and maple? The ultimate autumnal combo. A few drops of walnut liqueur, if you have some handy, also make a nice addition.
Now that we’ve got the ingredients, let’s make a cocktail, shall we?
One reason I love Old Fashioneds is that you build them in the glass — no shaker or mixing glass required. So into a nice rocks glass (optimally — you can make it in a plastic cup or whatever in a pinch), add:
2 ounces apple brandy
1/2 tablespoon maple syrup (you can go a little lighter or heavier according to your preferences)
2-3 dashes walnut bitters (and a hastily amputated trickle of walnut liqueur if you so choose — in which case go a little easier on the maple syrup)
Add a large ice cube (or a few small ones if necessary). Stir until the drink is cold and a little diluted.
Garnishes are not essential here, but I like to add a cinnamon stick and a dusting of nutmeg. If you’re in the mood, an apple slice also makes an appropriate and pretty garnish.
Lastly, sip and enjoy. The combo of the fruit and spice and sweetness and alcoholic kick will surely put a smile on your face, and maybe even help the festivities a little more bearable, if seeing your family gives you something other than an unbridled feeling of joy. Of course, the way I make it, the high alcohol content can loosen lips and result in some unpleasant and unwanted political conversations. So proceed with caution.