We are stepping into the wayback machine today for another of those sometimes wonderful, always in your face, pre-Prohibition cocktails. In fact, this is one of the first drinks to use what would become the practical definition of a cocktail with the addition of bitters to a classic Sling. We’ll get into all of that and why an apple a day will keep the doctor away after the break, if you will please join me as we stand and make, the Jersey Sunset.
I love looking through the old cocktail books, the true elder scrolls of the craft, and there is none more celebrated than the literary Q Source of the genre, Jerry Thomas’ “How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant’s Companion” published in 1862. That’s right, as the rest of the country was being divided by Civil War, Jerry was holed up in San Francisco, writing down and codifying the recipes and techniques of professional bartending. This was the first cocktail book published in the U.S. and the first to collect and share the oral traditions of the trade. It’s a fine work and you could spend many years studying its contents, doing deeper dives into the techniques presented and converting the recipes to modern measurements. Alternately, you could let someone else do all that legwork for you. I’m gonna let y’all in on a secret here, a little behind the bar, pro-tip, rather than digging through the original, toss down a few dollars and purchase “Imbibe” by David Wondrich. This James Beard award-winning book takes a long look at the life of Jerry Thomas’ through his writings and contemporary sources, not just giving you the good bits of the original book, but setting them in the right context while making the 19th century barman/showman come to life. It makes sense, Wondrich is one of the foremost cocktail experts in the country, writing a column for Esquire and guest authoring pieces for many other magazines, in addition to his books.
That is where I found this cocktail, reading through Imbibe, curled up in the big chair one Sunday morning with my coffee. If I am honest, I rarely get excited about the really old drinks. They tend to be fairly simple constructions, booze forward, leaning toward brandies, sherries and champagnes or made with gins that are hard to find now or the types of whiskies I usually avoid. Not to say that they don’t have great complexities of flavor, they just don’t jump off the page screaming “make me”. I can read the recipe for a gin sling and I know what that is going to taste like, based on which gin I choose. On the other hand, some of the ingredients have inspired journeys of discovery. My knowledge of brandy is limited, I just haven’t spent a lot of time there and, in the old days, it was a cocktail mainstay, especially apple brandy.
If we go back a couple of years I was barely familiar with Laird’s Applejack, even though it is one of the oldest spirits from the oldest distillery in the U.S. They did not incorporate until 1780, but William Laird was producing apple brandy in colonial New Jersey as early as 1698. It is said that New Jersey got its nickname “The Garden State” in part because of all of the orchards growing apples to be eaten or pressed into cider and brandy. When Prohibition came, before Laird’s got a special dispensation to produce “medicinal” apple brandy, there were so many unsold apples that the idea of “An apple a day, keeps the doctor away!” was created to bolster sales, allegedly. That may or may not be true, but there is no question that cider and brandy are among the highest and purest uses of John Chapman’s favorite fruit.
I remember being disappointed time and time again when I would order a cocktail with apple brandy in it. This is no fault of the drink or the bartenders, the blame falls entirely on me. My ignorance of the spirit set up false expectations and I kept getting surprised by how boozy these drinks were when I expected something light and sweet like an apple flavored whiskey. While you can definitely taste the apple in there, applejack is a strong, tasty sprit that makes it presence known immediately. It’s good stuff and to compare it to a flavored whiskey is an insult I made in error. Now that I have tried the various versions, I know better and I am going to try to do better. I recently lucked up on a bottle of their Barreled in Bond, so, when I read this simple booze forward recipe, I was ready for it.
We are stirring this one, so grab your mixing pitcher. There are two ways to go about building it, the classic way, and the quick way. Let’s run through both. In the classic style, drop a sugar cube into the pitcher with 1/2 an ounce of water and add a nice big lemon peel before muddling. Don’t beat it up too badly, just get those oils expressed without getting into the bitter pith. I like muddling and feeling that gritty sugar on the peel, so the old ways may be the best ways, but if you are in a hurry or don’t keep sugar cubes around, you can just go with 1/2 an ounce of simple syrup to make things go quicker. Either way, once you have some form of sugar and water muddled with a lemon peel, top with 2 ounces of Laird’s Applejack Barreled in Bond or 7 or 12 year apple brandy, add some cracked ice and stir to the beat of Bruce Springsteen singing “Sundown“. How can we have a Jersey drink without the Boss? Give it a good stir, while you think about your life, the choices that brought you to this place, why we aren’t listening to “Born to Run” instead; you’ve got time, that Barreled in Bond is 100 proof, so you are going to want a certain amount of dilution here. When you feel like you have achieved a reasonable level of contentment and chillin the mostness, pour into something pretty, suitable for a 150 year old cocktail. Top with 5-7 stabs of Angostura Bitters and garnish with a dehydrated lemon wheel or some fresh berries on a pick or some salt water taffy from Coney Island, whatever floats your boat, as they say.
That’s got a taste to it! It’s booze forward, but you knew that from the recipe. Obviously this tastes a lot like AppleJack and ango, but I am surprised at how much the lemon comes through. The sugar softens this one and knocks the edge off the bite, but it still has a throaty bark. Most of these elder drinks run that way. I can’t argue with wanting a drink to taste like the spirit and that is how many of these are approached. There is no question you are drinking applejack, with a little added flavor. For all the showmanship Jery Thomas brought to his bars, I can always hear Nick, from “It’s a Wonderful Life”, in the background declaring, “Look, mister. We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don’t need any characters around to give the joint “atmosphere”. Is that clear, or do I have to slip you my left, for a convincer?” This doesn’t present as a hard drink, but knock back three or five of them and you’ll be looking for that truck.
A year ago today, we made a Tequila Sunrise, so the Jersey Sunset seemed like a nice bookend. That got me to thinking about the last year. Looking back, I had no idea that adding bitters to a sling would push it over into cocktail territory or why. I have leaned a lot more than that, go back and look at the pictures if nothing else. To be fair, if you practice something every day for a year you get better at it. Things have certainly changed. Sure, we still have a long way to go, but we are getting there. We could get there a lot faster if so many did not spend their time and energy getting their info from a very different sort of Q source, but in spite of the folks who forgot how to science, we are making headway. Last year, we were pretty much staying home all the time, making bread and pasta, planting vegetables, weaving our own clothing and scavenging the burning hulks we’d find in the wasteland for materials, you know the usual. Today, folks are getting vaccinating and things are opening back up at a decent pace. The kid is playing baseball, we’ve been to the bar a couple of times for distanced drinks and while it feels a little strange after all this time, we are making plans with friends again. The world feels more sane. Well, at least our corner of it does. Things are still very bad in many parts of the world, India and Brazil in particular need help, but it feels like we can see the end of this thing. There is a lot to be said for that, because just one short, interminably long year ago, things looked very different, with a virus raging right alongside the fires in the streets. We’ve got work left to do, but at least it feels like we are moving in the right direction and I like them apples, just fine. Stay safe, stay hydrated and stay sane, my friends.