Southern to the Core

Distillers are taking apple brandy back to its roots

Photo: Johnny Autry

The menu at Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen, a restaurant with a location in Cary, North Carolina, and another in Greensboro, exudes a whole lot of Southern drawl. Fried catfish and hush puppies, shrimp and grits, pulled pork with johnnycakes, potlikker and cornbread: Fusion cuisine this is not. Slide on over to the drinks menu, and the accent follows: local Carolina beers and cider along with cocktails such as the Southern Moscow Mule (Dixiefied by the addition of Blenheim ginger ale) and a Southern Comfort–spiked peach lemonade that’s served in a mason jar. All of which makes the menu presence of a drink called a New Jersey Cocktail stand out like, well, a cocktail named for New Jersey.

The drink, a fine one, is made by dissolving a sugar cube in a shot of apple brandy and topping it off with hard cider and a dash or two of bitters. Cocktail geeks might recognize its pedigree—a riff on a champagne cocktail, it appears in drink manuals dating back to 1862—as well as the reason for its name. The Laird family of Scobeyville, New Jersey, has been continuously (Prohibition excepted) producing apple brandy—along with its blended cousin, applejack—since 1698. So thoroughly did they corner the market over the centuries that all apple-based spirits were once known as “Jersey lightning.” Hence the Jersey designation for that cocktail perched beside your pimento cheese dip at Lucky 32.

But here’s the twist. The Laird family still ages and bottles its apple spirits in New Jersey, but Virginia is where those spirits are distilled, and Virginia apple orchards provide all the voltage for that Jersey lightning. And one more twist: That New Jersey Cocktail at Lucky 32 is made with Carriage House Apple Brandy, from Carolina Distillery of Lenoir, North Carolina, one of several micro-distilleries in the South that are expanding the geographic reach of apple brandy, shifting the terroir southward.

Or rather reviving its reach, according to Carlene Holder, who three years ago founded Ivy Mountain Distillery with her now eighty-six-year-old father, Carlos Lovell, in Mount Airy, Georgia. “Daddy grew up with his daddy making apple brandy,” she says. “When all these flavored moonshines started coming out, he said, ‘That’s not apple brandy. I’m going to make it the way Daddy did.’” (“Your job,” he told his daughter, “is to get me the licenses to make it legal.”) Lovell has adhered to that ambition, using local spring water and Gala apples from orchards in adjoining Rabun County to distill his apple brandy, which significantly outsells the more Georgia-centric peach brandy they also produce. Among the other south-of-Jersey upstarts are Grandaddy Mimms Apple Brandy, from Milledgeville, Georgia, and an applejack produced by Forks of Cheat Distillery of Morgantown, West Virginia.

Southern bartenders, especially in the Piedmont, are paying attention. At the Crunkleton in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, bartender and owner Gary Crunkleton puts apple brandy in the baroque company of rye whiskey, Chartreuse, Benedictine, lemon juice, and bitters. Todd Thrasher, of Restaurant Eve and PX in Washington, D.C., mixes apple brandy with hard cider plus bourbon, then beautifully complicates matters with the addition of Lyle’s Black Treacle syrup and celery bitters.

“It’s become one of my favorite spirits to work with,” says Jeremy Wingle of Poole’s Downtown Diner in Raleigh, North Carolina. His Sir Isaac Newton cocktail is a variation on a classic sour, but with a symphonic level of apple flavors. Wingle devised it last fall, when the restaurant’s kitchen was overrun with apples. Lemon juice provides the sour, but the sweet comes from an intense (though simple-to-make) syrup that a simmered-down reduction of fresh apple cider yields. A stick of cinnamon adds some spice to the syrup, though he might also add pinches of allspice or cloves. Add a base of apple brandy, and the effect is almost deliriously autumnal, offering a heady dose of apple-on-apple action. “There’s such a great fall spirit in North Carolina when you get to September,” says Wingle, who, much like Ivy Mountain’s Carlos Lovell and his daddy before him, has managed to capture that spirit in a glass.