Apple Jack, a high-proof liquor distilled from apples and aged in American oak—predominantly former whiskey barrels—is one of a handful of spirits that can carry its name only if it has been produced in the US (like bourbon). Apple brandy, the broader category Apple Jack falls within, can be made the world over (with the most famous being Calvados from Normandy), but only Apple Jack is distinctly American and historically linked to the Northeast. At Williamson, New York’s Rootstock Spirits (formerly known as Apple Country Spirits), Apple Jack isn’t the center of the operation, rather it’s one delicious option for apples from the DeFisher Fruit Farms.
For five generations, the DeFishers have cultivated a diverse collection of fruits. In 2012, David DeFisher, operator and co-owner of the farm, brought his distillery vision to life. Today, head distiller Collin McConville has carte blanche to produce Apple Jack as well as brandies from other fruits grown on the farm—including peaches, pears, plums, raspberries, cherries and pluots. These delightful tipples can be tried at Rootstock’s tasting room. But the masterfully aged Apple Jacks and apple brandy are now making their way to liquor stores, too.
“I fell backwards into distilling,” McConville tells us. “I graduated college with a degree in history; I even took New York State history classes. I started working at a distillery, in the tasting room, as a job while I was going for my master’s degree. I fell in love with it.” McConville spent four years at that distillery until he moved to Rootstock to take on the distillation.
Apple Jack was an ideal categoric exploration for him. “One of the things I always liked to do is go back and look at old spirits categories and historic labels and see what I can do with that.” On a creative level, McConville works hand in hand with Rootstock’s head cider maker, who comes from a wine background. “I can bounce things off of him, and he bounces things off of me,” he says, “and we are able to lean on each other’s expertise.”
Central to McConville’s spirits (as well as Rootstock’s ciders) is the quality of apples—and many of his efforts go toward showcasing their inherent attributes. “When Dave Fisher started the distillery, one of the fist things he did—in addition to using the older varieties of apples he already had—was to research apples and plant old varieties that were used for distillation and fermentation. Now, we’re lucky enough that it’s been nine or 10 years since they were planted and we are harvesting them and seeing what they’re like,” McConville says.
“One of my favorite apples to work with is the Northern Spy,” McConville continues. “It’s a historic New York apple. It makes some of the best pies out there but it also makes a delectable cider with little hints of cinnamon and all spice that comes through the fermentation. Some of those flavors also come through distillation.” In fact, there are two or three dozen types of apples on the farm to work with. “We are looking for apples that have more tannic qualities—more of that apple essence or flavor—and we are not looking for things like the texture that’s sought out in some of those designer apples. People are breeding them to be crunchy, stay white, last long. That’s not what we need.”
True to Apple Jack origins, McConville prefers to adhere to old-world techniques. “We have a Vendome copper still, a custom set-up for us. We stick with a lot of manual, hands-on systems, like the water controls are all done by hand. We wanted to try to control every aspect of the process. We grow the apples. We press them on site. We ferment them on site.”
They even employ an old-world wine yeast for fermentation. “It takes a little bit longer than a distillation yeast but at the end of the day, it gives it a little bit more character. We also let it age for two years, or three, four and five years. We’re up to eight years in some of our barrels now. We’re taking our time. We let it come into its own.”
Both Rootstock’s Apple Jack and apple brandy start as the same liquid. But the former is aged in used whiskey barrels to impart vanillin and caramel notes, while the latter is aged in red wine barrels from the Finger Lakes. “It gives it more of that stone fruit flavor,” McConville says. He’s also experimenting with white wine barrels, and has his eye set on port ones.
All three fruitful spirits serve a purpose. All of them are easy to enjoy neat or on the rocks, as they yield a light sweetness. The younger Apple Jack, however, also blends into cocktails quite well.
Images courtesy of Rootstock Spirits