At the Oak Park Farmers Market, apples are abundant, with many different types to choose from. There are, in fact, 2,500 varieties of apples currently grown in the US, so if you’ve been sticking to just Honey Crisp, know that there are many other wonderful options out there.
The plethora of apples in this country is due, in part, to Johnny Appleseed, born John Chapman, who did indeed plant thousands of apple trees before he died in Indiana in 1845. But as Michael Pollan explains in Botany of Desire, most of those shockingly tart apples were not for eating: they were grown for making apple brandy, a.k.a. apple jack, an American spirit enjoyed by many, including George Washington and his troops.
Traveling in Indiana last week, we stopped at French Lick Winery and Distillery to check out some of the local wines. After the wine tasting, we sampled the Old Clifty Hoosier Apple Brandy…and took home a bottle. Though it had the warmth of a distilled spirit, the Old Clifty was soft on the tongue, with the distinct flavors of apple coming through clearly and pleasantly. Aged in wood for four years, this brandy is mellow with notes of vanilla and caramel. We liked pairing Old Clifty with a cheddar cheese and a cool Autumn evening.
Alan Reed Bishop, Head Distiller at French Lick Winery and Distillery, mentioned that between 1835 and 1914, the Black Forest region of Indiana (comprising six counties) was the brandy-producing capital of the world, with over 150 distilleries (not including bootleggers). This part of southern Indiana produced brandy of such quality and quantity that it was regularly exported to Normandy, France, where apple brandy had been produced since the sixteenth century (and where Calvados, a pear-apple brandy, is still made).
We saw abundant limestone deposits around French Lick, created from the bones of sea creatures that lived in the inland sea that covered much of what is now the US. Limestone springs provide water that has the right pH, as Bishop told me, to act as a “buffer against the acidity of the apple…and limestone has a lot of magnesium in it, which works as a yeast nutrient,” which drives fermentation.
Surprisingly, Bishop told me that Golden Delicious “seems to be the apple that holds up best to distillation, and our brandy is 50% Golden Delicious; for the rest, we use a mix of six or seven different apples. Granny Smith is also a good apple for distillation, and if you let it ripen properly, it goes from a super-sour green apple to a yellowish one with more complex flavor. If I had my druthers, there are a lot of heirloom apples I might prefer,” but finding enough heirloom apples at a decent price is a big challenge.
If you want to pick from the amazing range of heirloom apples available to us in the Midwest, the Oak Park Farmers Market is open through October – and if apple brandy tickles your fancy, Binny’s in Elmwood Park stocks several.
Apple brandy. A perfect drink for autumn.