The Rise of American Cider

Photo: Scott McIntyre for Farnum Hill Cider

Once America’s favorite beverage, fall-friendly cider is making a big comeback. Just don’t call it “juice.”

America is a proud, beer-guzzling nation, but as recently as 150 years ago, the country’s preferred alcoholic quaff was cider.

While neither grapes nor grain grew well in the rocky New England soil, apple seeds brought over by Colonial settlers easily took root, providing plenty of fermentable raw ingredients. Cider was easily and cheaply produced, offering a hygienic alternative to often unsafe water.

Cider’s reign ended in the mid-nineteenth century, due to several factors: The temperance movement demonized excessive drinking, and German immigrants began making crisp, elegant lagers in the urban cities where they settled. (Cider production was confined to farms.) The final blow was Prohibition. When the sober blanket was lifted, “cider” became synonymous with “apple juice.”

Yet in recent years, America’s cider industry has undergone a revival, as farmers, former brewers, and fermentationists have begun creating flavorful ciders of uncommon complexity and, pleasantly, precious little sweetness. “There are so many similarities between cider and where craft beer was in the eighties,” says Greg Hall, who was formerly the boundary pushing brewmaster at Chicago’s Goose Island.

Hall’s new cider venture, Virtue Brands, embodies his experimental nature. His crisp, subtly oaky RedStreak cider is fermented with a trio of yeast strains and partly barrel-aged, while the tart Lapinette is fully aged in French oak, and the Mitten slumbers in 12-year-old bourbon barrels. “I want to apply the techniques I learned in brewing to cider production,” says Hall.

In New Hampshire, Farnum Hill’s husband-and-wife duo Stephen Wood and Louisa Spencer rely on rare heirloom apples and ugly, inedible cider apples that are prized for their sugars, acids, and tannins. These apples create Farnum Hill’s dry, sharp, and aromatic ciders, which are sold in corked champagne bottles.

Down in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Foggy Ridge cider maker Diane Flynt relies on more than 30 English, American, and French apple varieties to fashion flavorful ciders, such as the lively First Fruit and the crisply refreshing Serious Cider. In Salem, Oregon, Wandering Aengus Ciderworks produces the full-bodied Wanderlust, which is aged in Frenchoak casks. Long-running cider brands like Original Sin and Woodchuck have started rolling out unusual singlevariety and barrel-aged ciders.

But the surest sign of cider’s arrival can be found in suds-mad Portland, Oregon. There, the city recently welcomed the country’s first cider brewpub, Bushwhacker Cider, which makes a portion of its product from apples fallen from Portland trees. “You can’t do that with hops or barley,” enthuses Hall.

To see my top-five ciders, check out the original story at Penthouse. I swear it's safe for work!

The Rye Stuff

This story was originally published in Penthouse. Go on, the link is safe for work!

For much of the past century, rye whis key has been the redheaded stepchild of America’s brown-spirits clan, as attention and accolades were showered upon corn-based bourbon and its signature smoothness and sweetness.

But rye whiskey is made with at least 51 percent rye, a hearty, resilient grain that gives the spirit a lean, peppery profile and a crisp, palate drying character. It’s as if bourbon decided to go punk rock. However, rye whiskey’s birth dates back to an era long before the Ramones. It gained in popularity after the American Revolution, when imports of molasses (the raw ingredient for rum, which was then America’s favored spirit) became expensive or erratic. Looking to fill the boozy void, intrepid Irish and Scottish settlers—and even George Washington—distilled whiskey made from the bountiful fields of rye. The spicy, aromatic spirit caught on, and over the next 150 years it became the nation’s dominant distilled inebriant, making its home in iconic cocktails such as the Manhattan and Sazerac.

Post-Prohibition, few rye distilleries reopened, and American tastes changed from rough-and-tumble rye to lighter spirits. But in the past decade, rye has begun its slow, spicy climb upward. Credit goes to bartenders, who began unearthing and re-creating vintage recipes.

While excellent old-guard brands such as the rich and peppery 100-proof Rittenhouse Rye, and the dry, lightly spicy Old Overholt never ceased pro duction, the framework of the modern rye resurgence was laid in 1996, when Anchor Distilling Company debuted its liquid time machine: Old Potrero single malt whiskey, which re-creates an eighteenth-century spirit that Washington might’ve been proud to distill. The secret is aging the all-rye spirit in oak barrels that are lightly toasted, not charred to a crisp. But be careful when sipping Potrero: It’s bottled without being diluted, so you’ll need to add a dollop of water or an ice cube to open up the vibrant, spicy flavor. (The distillery also offers a nineteenth-century version, which is aged in charred-oak barrels. You’ll taste spicy flavors, and a bit of the charred intensity as well.)

Nowadays, “The rye category has exploded,” says Bill Owens, the president of the American Distilling Institute. In Iowa, the balanced, butterscotch-kissed Templeton Rye is crafted according to a recipe dating back to the Prohibition era. Utah’s High West marries two-yearold and 16-year-old ryes to create its smooth, cinnamon-accented Double Rye. Chicago’s Koval Distillery crafts the Lion’s Pride Organic rye whiskey, which is made with 100 percent rye grain and aged in either lightly toasted or heavily charred new American-oak barrels.

While small-batch rye whiskey can be revelatory, those relatively rare bottles can require loads of leg work to uncover. For a worthy, widely available alter native, try Knob Creek’s newly released, 100-proof rye whiskey version. It’s a warming wonder, with a dry, herbal character and plenty of spice to boot. Bulleit Rye checks in at 90 proof, trading boozy oomph for a luscious mouthfeel, notes of cherries, and a lovely, lingering pep pery spice. Then there’s the curiously appealing Tap 357. The Canadian-born rye whiskey (it’s made with a lower percentage of the grain than its American counterparts) is blended with maple syrup harvested in Quebec, resulting in a smooth, layered flavor that’s somewhat akin to drinking breakfast. Like its fellow whiskeys, this is rye reenvisioned.

Kölsch Crush

In an oddball twist of writing life, I've become Penthouse magazine's resident beer and spirits journalist, dropping science on booze and brews across the globe. My latest missive is on that lovely, summer-friendly style, the kölsch. The dainty, fruity German ale comes equipped with a crisp edge, one that'll keep you coming back for another bottle, another pint. Curious? Check out the full story at Penthouse. Don't worry. It's safe for work.

Penthouse: Rum for Your Money

A few months back, I traveled to Panama to explore the pleasures of Panamanian rum—and, well, step on the foot of the vice president of Panama (not one of the prouder moments in my long, lubricated history of drinking). Finally, the fruits of my liquor labor have been published in Penthouse. I can only hope that my words do justice to the pictures in the magazine. Curious? Drink it up! It's totally safe for work, I swear.