Defining Moments in Hudson Valley Applejack

Prohibition may have dealt applejack a near death blow back in 1920 when the law went into effect, but apple brandy, commonly known as “applejack,” is once again making a name for itself as a popular American drink. Here in the Hudson Valley, where it boasts a rich and generations-long tradition, this natural and potent by-product of orchard fruit farming was once revered as “cider brandy,” “apple whiskey,” or just plain “apple.” For nearly two centuries it was renowned as the beverage of choice throughout New York State.

Since Adam and Eve, the apple has been closely identified with man’s existence. Its health and medicinal qualities were so highly considered that wherever colonization occurred, the apple was sure to follow. Around the globe, it was often the first tree fruit planted and cultivated in any newly acquired territory.

During the early Colonial Era in America, apple seeds from Europe were planted extensively, and almost every farm in the New World soon had its own apple orchard. After a harvest, surplus apples were pressed into cider, which was plentiful and cheap. Early settlers quickly came to favor cider and cider brandy, or “applejack,” which was traditionally made by allowing “hard,” or fermented, apple cider to freeze outside during the winter months. The layers of ice were removed and the liquid allowed to re-freeze—sometimes three or four more times—to concentrate the alcohol.

The word “applejack” itself is said to have been derived from the term “jacking,” an early term for freeze distillation. The resulting unfrozen liquid, however, was a crude and powerful drink, whose effect, it’s been noted, was like “a crack on the head with a hammer.”

In the decades before the American Revolution, colonists brought cider presses and simple stills with them to the New World. By heating fermented cider in a large, air-tight copper kettle, with its accompanying “worm” or distilling coil immersed in cold water, a farmer was able to isolate and vaporize (distill) the alcohol from the fermented fruit back into its liquid form. These simple pot stills varied in capacity ranging from 100 to 3,000 gallons, and were used to produce all sorts of “brandy”—the generic name for distillates made from fermented fruit, rather than from grain (i.e., whiskey).

Apple cider and distilled apple brandy were considered common offshoots of orchard farming, and as popular as farm-fresh apple pie, applesauce, apple cobblers, and apple preserves.

While many argue that applejack distillation began in Sussex County, New Jersey, it quickly spread into New York through the Hudson Valley. The “great applejack-producing belt” ran between the Hudson River on the east and the Delaware River on the west. Applejack production centered around Orange County, but its reach extended to Westchester, Rockland, Sullivan, Ulster, Dutchess, Columbia, and Greene counties.

Well into the 19th century, primitive applejack distilleries could be found on almost every hillside within the apple belt. Local farmers became the principal distillers, turning the end product into an important and desirable commodity in the Hudson Valley. Apple cider and distilled apple brandy were considered common offshoots of orchard farming, and as popular as farm-fresh apple pie, applesauce, apple cobblers, and apple preserves.

Drink of the Gods

In the rural communities they drank little else. Despite its potency, Hudson Valley settlers quaffed it at weddings, funerals, church raisings, and public events. Even children were given watered down, sweetened and spiced hard cider or “apple,” at night.

The reputation of this fiery spirit spread to the big cities, where it was regarded as a safe beverage free from adulteration, and considered the only “stimulant” truly fit to drink. It prolonged life, built up the system, and prevented disease. For proof, one only needed to point to the hearty old farmers who professed to have imbibed applejack for 60 or 70 years, and who—at 80—were as vigorous as men half their age.

Hudson Valley settlers quaffed it at weddings, funerals, church raisings, and public events. Even children were given watered down, sweetened and spiced hard cider or “apple,” at night.

The spirit was so popular, that if a man asked for “apple” or “whiskey” at a Hudson Valley establishment, the proprietor set out applejack. Rye or bourbon had to be requested as such. Every store and nearly every farmhouse sold “apple” and a farmer’s hospitality was measured by how quickly he produced the applejack jug, and the cheerfulness with which he replenished it.

Prices for applejack straight from the still (a colorless liquid as clear as water) started at fifty cents a gallon. But it was said that only a bold man with an iron stomach could voluntarily drink the strong spirit before it was a year old—even aged a year it was still sharp and fiery, and considered a “whiskey that seizes a man with the grip of a gorilla.” Lore has it that a four-ounce glass of applejack, “would climb to the head of a man that isn’t used to it in less than ten seconds. His face gets red and feels as if it was sun burned. When he shuts his eyes he sees a hundred torchlight processions charging at him ten abreast. He may sleep all night and all day, but when he wakes up he will find himself drunker than when he passed out.” Rip Van Winkle, the Catskill Region’s storybook character, fell asleep in the woods for 20 years after sampling spirits from a stranger’s keg. Many believe the beverage was not cider, but a powerful version of Hudson Valley applejack.

Generally it was considered that applejack improved and mellowed with time, taking on a fruity flavor and a pale yellow hue, becoming more and more valuable the longer it aged in the barrel. Connoisseurs often claimed that applejack was not fit to drink until it was at least three or four years old. Prices ranged from $1.50 to $2.50 a gallon, and as high as $5 a gallon for well-aged “apple.” Thousands of gallons were reportedly stored in farmers’ cellars that could fetch $10 or $15 a gallon, assuming the farmer could be convinced to part with it.

The Federal government took a different position on applejack, as it didn’t consider the spirit to be a farm product, even if made by a farmer furnishing his own apples. By 1875, applejack was not only prohibited from being sold without a license, but federal legislation had imposed a 90¢ per gallon tax on the beverage. The crackdown on illicit distilling came with heavy fines and imprisonment, along with the confiscation of any liquor. Both the distillery and entire farm were subject to seizure. Yet many farmers continued to manufacture applejack in spite of the government’s vigilance, and family farms with their distilleries continued passing from generation to generation.

empty vintage bottle of Old Catskill apple brandy

A Good Year for Orange “Apple”

Applejack production in the Hudson Valley reached its peak in the late 1800s. Throughout the applejack belt there were close to 60 registered distilleries devoted to its manufacture, with roughly 25 in Orange County alone. In fact, applejack distillation carried on to a greater extent in Orange County than in any other part of the country, producing about two-thirds of all made in New York State. Among them, the largest producer was J. L. Sayer & Son of Warwick, whose family had been distilling applejack since before the Revolutionary War. Other well-known distillers of the era included: Richard Wisner, Williams & Son, and Daniel Kelley, all of Warwick; Beverly K. Johnson’s Old Sycamore Distillery in East Coldenham; and Maher W. Decker in Burlingham, Sullivan County.

By all accounts, 1888 was a good year for apples, the even-numbered years being the good “apple-bearing” years. New York State produced 111,257 gallons of applejack that year; 68,000 gallons of it in Orange County. During 1872, the record year for the largest amount of legal applejack ever distilled, 101,617 gallons were produced in Orange County alone. But apple cultivation relies on the graciousness of nature. Apple trees might be loaded with fruit one year, and then almost barren the next. In a bad year, 1873 for example, the total production in Orange County was recorded at only 12,289 gallons.

Shortly after the turn of the new century, demand for applejack began to diminish, both on the local level and in the trade. Although growing consumption of beer had supplanted the taste for strong liquor, many attributed the passing of applejack to the Federal tax charged on fruit spirits, which was the same for rye or corn whiskies that cost farmers about one quarter of what it cost to make applejack from apples. In addition, many of the farmer-distillers in the Hudson Valley had converted to the Temperance movement, abandoning their stills and refusing to sell their apple crops to anyone who intended to use them for distilling. One by one, many of the old cider mills and distilleries fell into decay.

…even aged a year it was still sharp and fiery, and considered a
“whiskey that seizes a man with the grip of a gorilla.”

The enactment of Prohibition in 1920 dealt a final death blow to the legalized manufacture of the once popular distilled apple. Registered distillers were forced to dismantle or abandon their businesses, with only a handful opting to produce sweet cider and cider vinegar instead. In the more rural areas, however, the farmers who continued to distill illegally found that the demand was such that there was often little time to age it properly, and they took to coloring it with burnt sugar and roasted peach pits to “age” it quickly. For the most part, local authorities seemed to turn a blind eye to the small farmer-distiller during Prohibition, but there were occasional federal raids on illegal stills in all counties that resulted in the arrest of more prominent, and often repeat, offenders.

Applejack was the principal illicit beverage in most rural counties in New York, and it was Dutchess County bootleg applejack that became renowned for its superior quality during these dark years. But it was Greene County that received the media attention when Manhattan-based gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond made headlines attempting to muscle his way into the local applejack industry. Although Diamond previously escaped bullets, convictions, and jail time, his luck ran out in 1931, when both the state and federal governments cracked down on his activities in the northern Catskills. Numerous raids on his bootlegging ring were followed up with high-profile trials in the state’s capital in Albany and in Manhattan, bringing the subject of illegal applejack production into the national spotlight. Diamond’s death by gunfire, on the eve of yet another acquittal in December 1931, ended the media’s and the government’s obsession with illegal applejack distilling, and bootleg production returned to “normal.”

Back Open for Business

Talk of Prohibition’s end was barely on everyone’s lips when many saw an opportunity to cash in on applejack once liquor became legal again. The popularity of the Hudson Valley’s favorite libation before and during Prohibition led many to scramble on the eve of Repeal in 1933 to establish new distilleries, and bring legalized applejack back into local production.

Within just a few years, several locally-produced applejacks could be found on the market in the Hudson Valley and throughout New York, among them Old Catskill Brand Apple Brandy (from the Greene County Fruit Distillery, in Catskill, Greene County); Hendrik Hudson Distilleries’ Kinderhook Special Apple Brandy (Kinderhook, Columbia County); Old Orange County Brand Straight Apple Brandy (Middle Hope, Orange County); H. B. Morgan Distilleries’ Half Moon Brand Apple Brandy (Amenia, Dutchess County); and Hildick Applejack Brandy from Distilled Liquors Corporation, partially operating out of Mount Kisco (Westchester County).

The popularity of the Hudson Valley’s favorite libation before and during Prohibition led many to scramble to establish new distilleries
and bring legalized applejack back into local production.

Expectations of large sales growth, however, were never realized. The fundamental cause was initially attributed to commercial manufacturers’ failure to produce a palatable brandy of good quality. Most superior apple brandy was still made illicitly on the farm, and as such, would never be available on the retail liquor market. Consumer tastes had also changed, and it soon became apparent that applejack had lost much of its old-time hold on the hearts of rural Americans. The new generation of drinkers was mostly unfamiliar with this once-popular tipple, opting instead for more commonly available grain spirits like gin or whiskey. By the Second World War, nearly all of the independent Hudson Valley distilleries were gone. The eventual war-time ban on apples, pears, and other fruits and grains for distillation hastened their end. Many of the remaining distilleries were bought up by Laird & Co. in Scobeyville, the largest and well-known of the New Jersey distillers.

Good Old Applejack

It’s taken nearly half a century, but the Hudson Valley and Capital Region is experiencing a renaissance of distilled apple spirits. Consumer tastes have circled back around to once again embrace these unique and complex spirits, and local craft distilleries have stepped up to face the new demand.

The terms applejack and apple brandy are still synonymous (i.e., distilled from 100% apples), but new federal regulations allow for a “blended applejack” with up to 80 percent neutral grain spirits—a relic from the post-war years when consumers lost their taste for fruit brandy, and companies looked for cheaper ways to produce it.

Today, local distillers are crafting apple brandy in a fashion worthy of being sipped and savored like its French counterpart, Calvados. At its core, applejack has a full-bodied, fruity lushness, and whether distilled in small or larger batches, unaged or aged in American oak, these handcrafted, classic apple brandies are worthy of attention, sure to please even the most discerning palate. Now is the time to seek out these hand-crafted, small-batch spirits from 100% New York State apples. But hurry, they are so popular many are often sold out as quickly as they’re released.

Read more about the Hudson Valley’s applejack producers at hvciderguide.com.


A Look Back at Hudson Valley Applejack

etching of apple pressing with horse

1768

Daniel Sayer begins making cider and apple “whiskey” in Warwick, Orange County, NY, and by 1812 acquires a still originally from England that his descendants continue to use right up until Prohibition.

vintage cartoon of Uncle Sam with cider barrel

1875

New revenue laws enforce a 90¢ per gallon tax on applejack and fruit brandies. Harsh penalties are imposed on illicit distilling which drives generational farmer-distillers underground.

colorful crate label from Rip Van Winkle brand apples

1888

A peak year for apple crops in the Hudson Valley region that results in a surplus of apple cider and applejack. In Orange County alone, it was said, enough applejack was produced “to float a ship.”

vintage black and white illustration of man and bartender in a bar

1912

The rising Temperance movement, successive years of low-yield apple crops, and the unscrupulous doctoring of young applejack helps contribute to the decline of the once-popular tipple.

vintage oval label from Hildicks apple juice

1920

National Prohibition deals applejack a death blow, leaving only a few legitimate distillers producing apple juice, sweet cider, and vinegar. The majority of illegal farm producers continue with “business as usual.”

black and white photo of Legs Diamond

1931

Illegal applejack activity is thrust into the national spotlight when Jack “Legs” Diamond muscles in on the applejack and beer trade in Greene County and the Catskills. Media exposure from high-profile raids returns to normal after Diamond is gunned down in Albany.

vintage label from Old Orange County Straight Apple Brandy with yellow background and red carriage

1933

With repeal of Prohibition new distilleries quickly emerge to produce applejack and apple brandy legally, including Greene County Fruit Distillery, Old Orange County Apple Brandy Distillery, and Dutchess County Cider Company. Within a decade, changing consumer tastes forces them all to close their doors.

American Fruits Apple Brandy label from 2003

2003

Warwick Valley Winery & Distillery becomes New York’s first fruit micro-distillery with the launch of their unaged Apple Brandy. Soon afterwards, Tuthilltown Spirits Distillery becomes the state’s first whiskey distillery. A resurgence of locally-produced craft spirits ensues. Changes in distilling regulations in 2007 allows Harvest Spirits and other farm distilleries to open in the region and begin crafting small-batch applejack and apple spirits.

This article originally appeared in the premier issue of the Ultimate Cider & Apple Spirits Guide.

Photos:
Old Catskill Bottle: Sylvia Hasenkopf
Timeline: Flint Mine Press archives

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