The History of Cider Making

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Learn which plants you are drinking tonight in “The Drunken Botanist.”
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The first boozy concoction to come from apples was cider.

It seems there isn’t a plant or flower that hasn’t been harvested, brewed and bottled. The Drunken Botanist (Algonquin Books, 2013) by Amy Stewart explores the botanical history of some of the world’s greatest spirits. In this excerpt, learn the history of cider making and how cider was the first concoction made from apples. 

Malus domestica 
rosaceae (rose family)

The apple best suited for cider and brandy is what we would call a spitter: a fruit so bitter and tannic that one’s first instinct is to spit it out and look around for something sweet to coat the tongue—a root beer, a cupcake, anything. Imagine biting into a soft green walnut, an unripe persimmon, or a handful of pencil shavings. That’s a spitter at its worst. How, then, did anyone discover that something as crisp and bright as cider, or as warm and smooth as Calvados, could be coaxed from it?

The answer lies in the strange genetics of the apple tree. The DNA of apples is more complex than ours; a recent sequencing of the Golden Delicious genome uncovered fifty-seven thousand genes, more than twice as many as the twenty thousand to twenty-five thousand that humans possess. Our own genetic diversity ensures that our children will all be somewhat unique—never an exact copy of their parents but bearing some resemblance to the rest of the family. Apples display “extreme heterozygosity,” meaning that they produce offspring that look nothing like their parents. Plant an apple seed, wait a few decades, and you’ll get a tree bearing fruit that looks and tastes entirely different from its parent. In fact, the fruit from one seedling will be, genetically speaking, unlike any other apple ever grown, at any time, anywhere in the world.

Now consider the fact that apples have been around for fifty million to sixty-five million years, emerging right around the time dinosaurs went extinct and primates made their first appearance. For millions of years, the trees reproduced without any human interference, combining and recombining those intricately complex genes the way a gambler rolls the dice. When primates—and later, early humans—encountered a new apple tree and bit into its fruit, they never knew what they were going to get. Fortunately, our ancestors figured out that even bad apples make great liquor.


The first boozy concoction to come from apples was cider. Americans refer to unfiltered apple juice as apple cider and usually drink it hot with a cinnamon stick. But ask for cider in other parts of the world and you’ll get something far better: a drink as dry and bubbly as Champagne and as cold and refreshing as beer. When we drink it at all in North America, we call it hard cider to distinguish it from the nonalcoholic version, but such a distinction isn’t necessary elsewhere.

The Greeks and Romans mastered the art of cider making. When Romans invaded England around 55 BC, they found that cider was already being enjoyed by the locals there. By that time, apple trees had long ago migrated from forests around Kazakhstan and were well established across Europe and Asia. It was in southern England, France, and Spain that the technique of fermenting—and later distilling—the fruit was perfected. Evidence of this ancient art can be found in the European countryside today, where large circular apple grinding stones used to crush the fruit are still half buried in the fields.

Because the oldest orchards were seedling orchards—meaning that every tree was started from seed, resulting in a mishmash of novel and never-before-seen apples—early cider would have been made from a blend of all the fruit in the orchard not sweet enough to eat. The only way to reproduce a popular apple cultivar was to graft it onto the rootstock of another tree, a technique that had been used on and off since 50 BC. Apple farmers started making clones through grafting, and those popular varieties eventually acquired names. In the late 1500s, there were at least sixty-five named apples in Normandy. For centuries, many of the best apples for cider-making have come from this region, all chosen for their productivity as well as their balance of acidity, tannin, aromatics, and sweetness.

In America, the toss of the genetic dice continued, with John Chapman, a man we know as Johnny Appleseed, establishing apple nurseries at the edge of the frontier in the early nineteenth century. He considered it wicked to start a tree by grafting, so his always grew from seed, the way nature intended. That means that early settlers grew—and made cider from—uniquely American apples, not the well-established English and French cultivars being grown across the Atlantic.

Historians love to trot out statistics on cider consumption before the twentieth century to demonstrate what lushes our ancestors were. In apple-growing regions, people drank a pint or more per day—but they had few alternatives. Water was not to be trusted as a beverage: it carried cholera, typhoid fever, dysentery, E. coli, and a host of other nasty parasites and diseases, many of them not well understood at the time but clearly originating in water. A mildly alcoholic drink like cider was inhospitable to bacteria, could be stored for short periods, and was safe and pleasant to drink, even at breakfast. Everyone drank it, including children.

Cider has always been low in alcohol because the apples themselves are low in sugar. Even the sweetest apples contain much less sugar than grapes, for instance. In a vat of cider, the yeast eat what sugar there is, turning it into alcohol and carbon dioxide, but once the sugar is gone, the yeast die off for lack of food, leaving behind a fermented cider that contains only about 4 to 6 percent alcohol.

Today, some cider makers bottle their product and then add another round of sugar and yeast, allowing the carbon dioxide to build up inside the bottle and create bubbles, Champagne-style.

On the other end of the spectrum, so-called industrial ciders made by large scale commercial distilleries may also contain non-fermenting sweeteners like saccharine or aspartame to give cider the sweetness that the mass market demands.

Calvados and Applejack

But there’s more to apples than cider. In 1555, a Frenchman named Gilles de Gouberville wrote in his diary that a visitor had suggested a way to make a clear, highly alcoholic spirit from cider. Once fermented, he explained, cider could be heated, so that the alcohol would rise with the steam and collect in a copper pot, where it could be extracted and bottled. A little time in an oak barrel made it even better. The term for this spirit might have originally been eau-de-vie de cidre—eau-de-vie being the early term for any kind of distilled spirit—but it soon earned the name Calvados, after the region in Normandy where it was made.

Americans wasted no time making their own version of Calvados. The Laird & Company Distillery in New Jersey holds bragging rights to License No. 1, the first distillery license issued in the United States, in 1780. According to the family’s records, Alexander Laird arrived from Scotland in 1698 and began growing apples and making “cyder spirits,” or applejack, for his friends and neighbors. When Robert Laird went to fight under George Washington’s command, the family sent a gift of applejack for the troops. The family claims that Washington liked it enough to request the recipe and begin producing it on his own farm, but there is no record of applejack distillation at Mount Vernon. Cider, however, was regularly made for the Washington family, staff, and slaves.

Colonists who lacked the technical skills to build a copper still found another way to do it—they’d leave a barrel of cider outside in winter, let the water content freeze, and siphon off the unfrozen alcohol. The “freeze distillation” method was dangerous: with no way to extract the concentrated toxic compounds that can usually be removed during distillation, the alcohol contained enough poison to contaminate the liver or cause blindness. That might have given applejack an undeservedly bad reputation, but fortunately, better distillation methods prevailed.

Apples also make a fine eau-de-vie. Rather than running fermented apple juice through a still, eau-de-vie is typically made by crushing whole apples into a mash, fermenting it, and distilling a high-proof, clear alcohol. According to Cornell pomologist Ian Merwin, using whole crushed apples yields much higher levels of the aromatics that give apple spirits their flavor. “A good eau-de-vie made with mash fermentation tastes much more like an apple than Calvados does,” he said. It also helps that it is usually distilled in a more sophisticated fractional column still, which allows for more precise retention of aromatics. Calvados, by French law, must be distilled in an older-style alembic pot still, which is a more traditional but less exacting method of distillation.

Eaux-de-vie are not finished in barrels, which means that the flavor comes entirely from the fruit and not from the oak. “With Calvados,” Merwin said, “you’re really just taking apple-based ethanol, which is a solvent, and putting it into oak to extract the oak flavors from it—which are admittedly nice in their own right. But there’s not as much apple flavor left when it comes out of the barrel.”

Don’t tell that to a Calvados enthusiast. A nicely aged Calvados possesses a certain golden, sunlit quality that can only come from apples. It is best enjoyed neat, before or after dinner, or even in the middle of a meal: in Normandy the phrase trou normand, or “Norman hole,” refers to the glass of Calvados served between courses to create a hole in the appetite and make room for the rest of the meal.

Cider Cup

In the Middle Ages, people made a crudely fermented drink called dépense by steeping apples and other fruit in water and letting the juice ferment naturally. This is a much more refifined version that is light enough to drink all afternoon in the summer.

2 parts hard cider
Sliced apples, oranges, melons, or other seasonal fruit
Frozen raspberries, strawberries, or grapes
1 part ginger beer or ginger ale (nonalcoholic)

In a large pitcher, combine the cider and sliced fruit; allow to soak for 3 to 6 hours. Strain to remove the sliced fruit. Fill highball glasses with ice and frozen berries, fill the glass three quarters full with cider, and top with ginger beer to taste.

Classification of Apples for Cider Making

Sweet: Low tannin, low acidity (Golden Delicious, Binet Rouge, Wickson)

Sharp: Low tannin, higher acidity (Granny Smith, Brown’s, Golden Harvey)

Bittersharp: Higher tannin, higher acidity (Kingston Black, Stoke Red, Foxwhelp)

Bittersweet: Higher tannin, lower acidity (Royal Jersey, Dabinett, Muscadet de Dieppe)

Apple Spirits 

Apple brandy: A generic term for a spirit distilled from fermented apple juice or mashed apples, bottled at a minimum of 40 percent ABV, usually aged in oak.

Applejack: In the United States, another term for apple brandy. “Blended applejack” contains at least 20 percent applejack; the rest is neutral spirits.

Apple liqueur: A sweeter, lower-alcohol apéritif (often about 20 percent ABV) can be made from apples in a number of ways. One method would be to add apple brandy to fermenting cider before the yeast have consumed all the sugar. The higher alcohol content kills the yeast, stopping fermentation and resulting in a sweet drink almost like a dessert wine with fresh apple flavor. Apple liqueurs may be aged in oak before bottling.

Apple wine: While apple wine is a very old term for cider, today it refers to a type of cider to which additional sugars and yeasts have been added to push the alcohol content higher, usually to at least 7 percent ABV. Apple wines are typically not carbonated.

Calvados: Apple brandy made in a specific region of northern France, using apples from designated orchards, containing at least 20 percent local varieties, at least 70 percent bitter or bittersweet varieties, and no more than 15 percent sharp varieties. The spirit is bottled at a minimum of 40 percent ABV.

Calvados Domfrontais: Follows the other rules for Calvados, but this apple brandy must contain at least 30 percent pears. It is single distilled in a column still and aged in oak for at least three years.

Calvados Pays d’Auge: This is specific to the Pays d’Auge region; it follows all other rules for Calvados and must be double-distilled in a traditional copper still and aged in oak for at least two years.

Eau-de-vie: A clear spirit made from fermented fruits that is not aged in oak and is bottled at 40 percent ABV or higher. It is the fruit equivalent of “white whiskey.”

Pommeau: A delightful French blend of unfermented cider and apple brandy bottled at about 16 to 18 percent ABV.

From The Drunken Botanist, by Amy Stewart. © 2013 by Matti Friedman. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All Rights Reserved. 

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