Hard cider, apple wine, apple brandy, and applejack differ mainly in the ingenious methods that have been invented to arrive at their percentages of alcohol.
Apple juice can be allowed to ferment naturally by just leaving it around in the open and letting airborne yeast cells fall into it. These microscopic, single-celled plants feed on the fruit sugars, converting them to ethyl (grain) alcohol.
It doesn’t take many yeast cells to start the ball rolling, because the more they feed the more they reproduce, growing into voracious sugar-eating machines in a couple of days. But when all the sugar is consumed, the feeding frenzy ends; the alcohol concentration is about 5 percent, about equivalent to beer. That’s hard cider, as opposed to, well, “soft” or nonalcoholic cider, which is really just apple juice.
We humans don’t have a monopoly on intoxication. I used to have an apple tree that dropped its apples onto my driveway every fall. The apples would break open and release their juices, which would soon ferment. Bees would be attracted, sip the sweet alcoholic juice, become intoxicated, and roll around in delirium on the ground. I had lots of fun watching this apian bacchanal, but I was kept busy calling cabs to take them home to the hive. (Don’t drink and fly!)
In the cider-producing regions of England, France, and Spain, the south of England, the north of France, and the Asturias region of northern Spain, where apple trees thrive and grapevines don’t do very well, ciders are often drunk or used in marinating and cooking instead of wines. The characteristics of different ciders can vary as much as those of different wines. Like wines, ciders can be matched with foods based on their acidity, dryness, and fruitiness, qualities that arise from the specific varieties of apples the cider was made from and how it was fermented.
The dryness of a cider is the extent to which the apples’ sugars have been fermented to alcohol; the driest ciders have had all their sugars used up. The very dry Spanish sidra of Asturias, for example, is a particularly good stand-in for dry white wine in virtually all its applications.
A sparkling or effervescent cider, like sparkling wine, has been bottled before fermentation is complete. A highly regarded example of this is the French-style cider (cidre), either sparkling or still, with its alcohol content limited to 2 to 5 percent by arresting the fermentation process, either by pasteurization or by the addition of sulfur dioxide.
Very early in the game, humans figured out what was happening to fermenting apple juice and wanted to boost the alcohol content to fuel their paeans to Dionysus. They added more sugar to feed the yeast, eventually also allowing the juice to absorb tannins from the insides of wooden barrels for complexity and depth of flavor. The alcohol content was in this way boosted to between 10 and 12 percent, comparable to that of grape wines. We have now made apple wine.
Want still (pun intended) higher alcohol content? Distill the apple wine, just as some wineries distill their grape wine to make brandy. That is, boil the liquid and cool the hot vapors to condense them back to a liquid. Because alcohol evaporates more readily than water does, the vapors and hence the condensed liquid (brandy) will be richer in alcohol than the original liquid (wine) was.
Laird & Company, the biggest producer of apple brandy, distills cider until it is 80 percent alcohol (160 proof), cuts it with water to about 65 percent (130 proof), and ages it in charred oak barrels. It comes out as apple brandy. At bottling time it is adjusted so that the alcohol content is 40 or 50 percent (80 or 100 proof) and labeled applejack, although strictly speaking it is still a brandy, according to the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
The French apple brandy Calvados, a product of the eponymous département 4 in Normandy, is similarly made by distilling apple wine twice: first to achieve an alcoholic content of 28 to 30 percent and again to reach 72 percent, after which it is “cut” to a more drinkable 40 to 43 percent (80 to 86 proof).
The word brandy comes from the Dutch brandewijn, meaning burnt (actually, distilled) wine. In France, brandy is known as eau de vie, or water of life. I guess it’s a matter of priorities.