The Apple is a Cocktail Star from Way Back

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The first documented use of the term “cocktail” in reference to the alcohol-based concoctions we know and love today occurred in 1806, in the pages of a long forgotten newspaper in Hudson, New York. There’s a discernible, though certainly not unbroken, line from that instance to the whiskey cocktail in your hand right now.

But of course neither the word nor the thing itself dropped from the sky. Before that landmark appearance of the word in print, the cocktail groundwork was certainly being laid. People drank spirits and people mixed those spirits with other ingredients. Call it the beta phase of cocktail culture. And one of the biggest stars of this primordial stage of mixology was ... the humble, versatile, delicious, and frankly amazing apple.

If your grocery store stocks the same five varieties of apple over and over, you might be surprised to learn that there are more than 7,500 apple cultivars in the world, approximately 2,500 of which are grown in America (and 70% of those in Washington State). All of these are descended from a line of exotic ancestors from the Tian Shan mountains of Kazakhstan. Those apples, which still exist today, are far more sour and bitter than the sweet and crunchy apples most people are used to.

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Closer on the apple timeline to the wild ancestors of Kazakhstan are crab apples, the only species of apple native to North America. They’re similarly small and tart, and they’re nicknamed “spitters” because, well, they aren’t so palatable. Nevertheless, soon after Europeans landed in America in the early 1600s, they started harvesting crab apples. The colonists didn’t grow them for snack food; no, they harvested them to make cider with—specifically, “hard” cider, a fermented beverage containing alcohol.

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Cider became a way to consume the fruit despite its bitterness, and it was easier and more affordable to produce than beer or wine (both of which they tried—and tried—to manufacture). It also went further than that: at times cider was the colonists’ primary source of hydration, because their water supplies were often contaminated with deadly bacteria. (Colonists also harvested other varieties of apples with seeds brought over from Europe.)

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While hard cider has an alcohol content roughly equivalent to that of beer, some among the many thirsty colonists wanted a more potent beverage. They gradually discovered that if you left cider out on a cold night, then removed the part of it that froze solid, the remaining liquid would have a much higher proof. This method of “freeze distilling,” also called “jacking,” produced a spirit called applejack. Further refinements transformed applejack into an excellent, whiskey-like beverage, one that had a huge fan in no less a figure than George Washington. That’s right, the first President of the United States was a massive applejack fan, and produced both cider and applejack on his property. He once requested the applejack recipe of a prominent distiller, and he kept his soldiers supplied with the stuff during Revolutionary War campaigns.

As they improved their spirit making skills, colonists also boosted their mixology game. They blended spirits with all sorts of things, including shrubs—a kind of fruit syrup that’s back in cocktail vogue today—lemons and limes when they could get them, peaches (ditto), apples, water, and, of course, other spirits. They even came up with some apple-based proto-cocktails, such as the Stone Fence (rum and hard cider) and the Syllabub (hard cider, cream, sugar, lemon, egg white). The Stone Fence is still mixed up today.

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Apples went macro in adult beverages with the arrival of the legendary folk hero Johnny Appleseed (born John Chapman, in 1774). He spread apple seeds over huge swaths of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and a sliver of West Virginia. Despite what you may have read in elementary school, Appleseed wasn’t populating the country with fruit for eating—his apples were also “spitters,” ideal for producing cider.

Apple-based tipples, like all spirits, got sidetracked by Prohibition, but that was a mere hiccup, and the fruit made its presence even more widely known in drinking culture’s modern era. In addition to hard cider and applejack, a dizzying array of apple brandies, apple liqueurs, and apple-infused whiskies, vodkas, and gins have emerged. And with the Jack Rose (applejack, fresh lemon juice, grenadine) leading the way, modern-day mixology is studded with apples across an endless array of recipes, both signature and classic. The Apple Martini (vodka and either apple juice, apple brandy, or apple cider), was invented in 1994 at an LA joint called Lola’s, and originally titled the Adam’s Apple Martini. That’s a fitting nod to the apple’s fundamental and enduring role at the heart of cocktail culture.