Rachel Cole Gardner was working on her grandmother's farm in Upstate New York when she noticed some gangly apple trees around the property, trees that hadn't been pruned in years, adorned with tiny green bulbs.
Curious, she tasted a few. "They were very bitter, very tart — blech! — but I ended up pulling down 10 to 15 pounds of them and bringing them back here," says Gardner, co-founder of Republic Restoratives distillery in Washington.
The apples sat in the distillery refrigerator until a bartender pushed them to the head of Gardner's to-do list by juicing them. Gardner added yeast and let the brew sit for a couple of months before distilling it into brandy.
Until quite recently, most domestic brandies — both the grape-based standard and those from other fruits — have languished in the elegant shadow of such European forebears as cognac and Calvados.
As the cocktail movement gained steam through the early 2000s, interest in craft spirits and in those older distilling traditions increased in the U.S. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, brandy sales have gone up 35 percent since 2002. Small distillers scattered around the country have started dabbling in brandy, incorporating fruits that reflect their region's farms.
If you're new to brandy, you might not know what to expect. In unaged eau de vies, the base fruit is often more perceptible, but the longer a spirit stays in barrels, the more the wood shapes its flavor. And unless they're adulterated post-distillation, most fruit brandies aren't particularly sweet; don't buy one expecting a fruit-flavored liqueur.
That said, American brandies are all over the map. The famed, named brandies of Europe are governed by centuries of rules and traditions for where, how and from what they may be made (you can't make a "cognac" if you're not doing it in Cognac), but American brandies don't labor under such restrictions. While many domestic producers love European brandies, they're not all looking to mimic them, and they're largely free to choose which traditions to explore and which to ignore.
Leading the charge on the "ignore" (or at least "disrupt") front is Copper & Kings, which was founded in Louisville, Kentucky, the heart of bourbon country, in 2014 and now has several highly praised brandies on the market.
Republic Restoratives' new Chapman's apple brandy represents almost the opposite end of the spectrum, emphasizing the base fruit. Before distillation, the cider is rested on the lees, the dead yeast deposits left after fermentation, which impart great flavors.
HOT BUTTERED APPLE BRANDY
8 cups water
8 chai tea bags
1½ cups apple brandy
For spiced butter:
4 ounces salted butter, at a cool room temperature
1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest
½ cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon Angostura bitters
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Bring water to full boil in large saucepan over high heat; remove from heat; add tea bags. Steep 4-6 minutes; discard bags. Add apple brandy; reheat over low heat.
For spiced butter: Whisk together ingredients in mixing bowl until incorporated. Makes ¾ cup. Ladle hot tea mixture into small pitcher; top with heaping teaspoon spiced butter. Stir until butter is foamy. Divide into small mugs or glasses with spoons.
Source: The Washington Post