Old-Timey Apple Brandy and Rye Cocktail: How to Make the American Trilogy

Old-Timey Apple Brandy and Rye Cocktail: How to Make the American Trilogy
Courtesy of Whisky Advocate

Compared to the U.S., apple brandy is thousands of years old.

The American spirits industry has the annoying habit of trying to convince you that it is the "oldest" or the "first" to do anything.

It is said that Evan Williams distillery was founded in 1783, and Elijah Craig claims they are the ones who made the first bourbon, for the Good Reverend Craig was the one who thought it would be best aged in oak barrels. During Prohibition, Buffalo Trace was permitted to make what was humorously referred to as “medicinal” whiskey, so they claim they’re the oldest continuously operating distillery in the country.

Historically, the original American spirit was not whiskey, but apple brandy, which was freeze-distilled by the settlers up and down the eastern seaboard before there was even an America. First license issued to a distillery, License No. 1, in 1780, was to Laird & Company, an apple brandy distiller—Alexander Laird moved from Scotland and claims to have started distilling in 1698, and George Washington wrote about Laird's "cyder spirits" in his diaries as early as 1760.

You see, it is not possible to call a cocktail "American Trilogy" without inviting questions about its ingredients. That is why we are talking about this.

As mentioned, Apple Brandy is America's first spirit, and the American Trilogy is surprisingly evocative for such a simple drink—apple brandy, rye whiskey, orange bitters, and sugar. It is rye that made the first whiskey: Early Irish and Scottish immigrant distillers discovered that barley, which grew so well in the old country, would not thrive in the harsh New England climate, so they used rye instead. In the 1990s, a former cocktail ingredient known as orange bitters was resurrected by an English bartender who had moved to New York, Gary Regan. The New Orleans brand Sazerac ultimately put the bitters into production in 2005.

The American Trilogy is composed of three ingredients, all of which were started by immigrants but are still distinctly American in their own right. It was created around 2007 by Richard Boccato and Michael McIlroy at Little Branch in New York. It is essentially an Old Fashioned with a split spirit base, and mixologically speaking, it is not very complicated at all, but it has spread so quickly that bartenders are now familiar with it all over the country.

In addition to its quality, it is one of the reasons why it has traveled so widely—rye and apple brandy are fast friends in the world of split base spirits, where the apple brandy lends itself to the grainy persistence of rye. In addition to the orange bitters, the sugar smooths out the sharp edges of the proof while the orange bitters add a spiced juicy complexity. One more reason, if we are honest with ourselves, is the name. Sometimes, we have to admit, a good story can really make a difference.

American Trilogy

  • 1 oz. rye whiskey
  • 1 oz. apple brandy
  • 0.25 oz. demerara syrup
  • 2 dashes orange bitters

In a rocks glass, combine all the ingredients and add a large piece (or a few pieces) of ice at one end. Stir the cocktail for 5 to 10 seconds (if the ice is small) or for 15 to 20 seconds (if the ice is large). Garnish with an orange peel and enjoy!


Courtesy of Amazon UK

This is a simple drink suitable for all rye whiskey enthusiasts. Brandy pairs well with just about any rye whiskey. If I want a softer drink, I prefer a 90 proof Sazerac or a 110 proof Pikeville rye, and if I want a punchier drink, I prefer a Wild Turkey 101 or Rittenhouse.

Calvados is a specialty apple brandy that the French create, but we are discussing an American trilogy. In addition, the aforementioned Laird & Company still exists, and is still family owned, now in their ninth generation, and is one of the best choices you can make.

In addition to the 80 proof Applejack, the company produces a number of other products that are nowhere near as good as their full-apple products—which is a bland mixture of 35% apple brandy and 65 percent grain neutral spirits (essentially vodka). There are two kinds of apple brandy that you can choose from, either the 100 proof "bottled in bond" variety or the "Straight Applejack 86," both of which are 100 percent apple brandy.

The Clear Creek distillery, Rhinehall distillery, and others make apple brandy that is also worthy of your attention. In my opinion, these are great brands; in my opinion, the others may be less so. Just make sure it's an American one, of course.

Those "Sugar in the Raw" packets at Starbucks are demerara sugar, which is less refined than white sugar, but still has a hint of molasses flavor, which deepens the cocktail. In order to prepare it, stir hot water with equal parts demerara or turbinado sugar until the sugar dissolves. 

There is nothing wrong with making this drink with white sugar, but demerara sugar (or even brown sugar, which is not less refined but is, in fact, white sugar that has had molasses added back to it) will be better for this drink.

Regan's No. 6 Orange Bitters are recommended in the original recipe, probably because they are available at the time and also work well here. Despite the fact that many companies make orange bitters now, for me no one stand out above the rest. If you can find Regan's, great. If not, use what you can. However, be careful not to overdo it. It's easy to overdo orange bitters.

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