Apple-based spirits don’t get as much attention as grape-based counterparts. But they can be remarkably expressive, ranging from lively, sweet-tart pours akin to the crisp bite of a green-skinned Granny Smith to lush bottlings so rich with caramel and spice they suggest tarte Tatin and apple strudel.
For those selecting an apple brandy or other apple-based spirit for the first time, it can be helpful to compare them to spirits in other categories.
France’s Calvados has the longest history, often made with both apples and pears in the same bottle, and aged primarily in used French oak barrels. The ends result is often nuanced, silky and light, melding baked fruit and gentle spice. Those who enjoy France’s grape brandies like Cognac and Armagnac won’t be disappointed by Calvados.
By comparison, America’s domestic apple brandies are a more diverse lot; the same can be said for American whiskey. Some domestic brandies possess just as much finesse and restraint as a typical Calvados while others are more fruit-forward. Others drink more like Bourbon than brandy, particularly those aged in new American oak—just like Bourbon— resulting in a style that favors oak’s caramel and spice over pure fruit. In addition, a growing number of brandies emphasize the terroir that apple-growing regions and apple varieties can provide.
Although applejack isn’t technically an apple brandy— it’s an apple brandy mixed with neutral spirit—we’ve chosen to include them for the sake of completism and comparison. In general, applejacks are bottled at a higher proof than most apple brandies, so they tend to have bold flavor and plenty of spirituous oomph. Some liken applejack’s spicy character and heat to rye whiskey.
Of course, these aren’t hard-and-fast rules, especially since producer styles are constantly evolving. But these comparisons might be helpful for discovering an enjoyable bottle of an apple-based spirit.
Claque-Pepin Vieille Reserve Organic Calvados; $45, 97 points. Hitting all the right notes, this shows fresh apple and vanilla aromas that lead into rich butterscotch and honey palate. The feather-light finish shows salted caramel, roasted nuts, and a flurry of cinnamon and clove. Heavenly Spirits.
Laird’s 10th Generation Apple Brandy (USA); $42, 96 points. This substantial sipper has a copper hue and a baked apple aroma. The plush palate opens with lots of caramel and spice. A splash of water brings out hints of tobacco and cigar wrapper, finishing with baked apple, cinnamon, and clove. Aged five years and bottled in bond, this bottling commemorates the 10th generation of Laird’s making apple spirits.
Catoctin Creek Quarter Branch Virginia Apple Brandy (USA); $30, 94 points. Look for a bright topaz hue and a velvety caramel tone on the nose and palate. Lush toffee leads into mouthwatering flickers of cocoa and tropical fruit, finishing long with clove and black pepper heat. Blue Bee Cider made the base then Catoctin distilled and aged the liquid.
Boulard Limited Edition Mizunara Cask Finish XO Calvados; $100, 93 points. The aroma of this brandy is pure concentrated vanilla richness, while the palate is more drying and complex. Soft vanilla and toffee give way to hints of red fruit, orange peel, and oak, leading into a long finish marked by cinnamon and clove. Palm Bay International.
Hotaling Aged 4 Years Apple Brandy (USA); $50, 93 points. Made with California apples, this limited edition brandy was aged for four to eight years in barrels that once held Old Potrero straight rye whiskey. The end result is a golden liquid scented with vanilla and a whiff of fresh-cut red apple. The toasty palate shows vanilla, roasted nuts, and a hint of cocoa, with baked apple shining through on a gentle exit edged with lemony acidity. Sip or mix.
Traverse City Whiskey Co. Experimental Series Apple Brandy (USA); $40, 93 points. Made with Michigan apples and aged in used Bourbon barrels, this brandy has a mild red fruit and vanilla scent but is bold and mouth-filling at first sip. Vanilla bean and maple layer with cinnamon spice. A much-needed splash of water brings out mocha tones. Bottled in bond at 100 proof.
Barking Irons Applejack (USA); $45, 91 points. This was made with New York state apples and aged at Brooklyn’s Van Brunt Stillhouse for a minimum of three months. Vanilla and fresh pear aromas lead into a vanilla wafter palate tinged with coconut and lightened with a minty tingle. Recommended to mix.
Daron Fine Calvados; $40, 91 points. A mix of apple and pear plus a hint of funk define the nose. The mild palate leans toward fresh and baked apple slicked with honey, finishing drying and brisk with ginger and clove heat. Sip or mix. WJ Deutsch & Sons.
Tattersall Apple Brandy (USA); $29, 91 points. Made with organic apples from Minnesota orchards and aged in new oak barrels, the end result is a golden hue and woody aroma, with just a hint of fruit. The palate is light and custardy, suggesting vanilla cream and lemon cream pie, finishing brisk with nutmeg, cedar, ginger, and clove.
Mad Apple Wicked Vermont Apple Brandy (USA); $45, 90 points. Look for a burnished gold hue, with chamomile and almond aromas. The palate opens with a faint hint of salted butterscotch and baked pear, finishing with lemon peel acidity, oaky dryness, and nutmeg spice. Aged in new oak barrels, this brandy was formerly labeled as “Malvados” but was rebranded and slightly reformulated after a run-in with France’s Calvados authorities.