On The Rocks (mixed messages) 

Apples are looking good in the markets right now; it’s the time of year when it’s easy to get your daily dose. It’s also the time when we think of apples in other forms: in pies, in stuffing … and, oh yes, in booze. Cider-based drinks are perfect for holiday entertaining — or simply enjoyed solo in front of a crackling fire. Or a fireplace screen-saver; we’re not fussy.

This investigation began with a published recipe for an apple cider cocktail that went like this (makes two drinks):

1/2 cup apple cider

1/4 cup Calvados (apple brandy)

1/4 cup brandy

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

2 tsp pure maple syrup.

Shake in a cocktail shaker with ice, strain into chilled glasses.

Yawn.

So I went to work trying to make it more interesting and, in honor of Thanksgiving, more American. First substitution: all-American applejack for the French Calvados. Yeah, I like Calvados, but the cheaper ‘jack has more, well, jack. I didn’t happen to have anything but French Cognac on hand, but you could easily substitute the classy Germain-Robin brandy made in California, or a less pricy but still good version from Korbel; for this drink, it doesn’t pay to pay too much.

Another adjustment: cut way down on the lemon juice and up the booze content. Feel free to play, but I liked this best with about equal parts cider, Laird’s Applejack, and brandy. The next question has to do with the cider or apple juice: is there a difference? No, not really. The trick is to find juice that hasn’t been made from concentrate, isn’t full of additives, and that doesn’t have white grape juice as a base.

I found two products among the many imposters at Central Market: CM’s own unadulterated Organics Apple Juice and a product from R.W. Knudsen called Cider and Spice — with genuinely desirable additives. (Since sediment is apparent in both, you may want to run them through a coffee filter.) The straight apple juice is honest stuff, but the spiced version suggested some new avenues of investigation: substitute it directly, substitute in part, reduce a couple of cups by half through boiling and use as an accent …

So I tried all of the above, along with a couple of other tricks. I made a simple cinnamon syrup by simmering equal parts sugar and water with a couple of cinnamon sticks. I crushed a few pink peppercorns in a molcajete to add as a fruity-peppery accent. Here’s the final result, but, again, feel free to fiddle: 1/3-cup organic apple juice mixed 50 percent with the reduced Cider and Spice, 1/3-cup applejack, 1/3-cup brandy, 2 tsp. agave syrup (yes, it’s less Yankee Thanksgiving, but I preferred its rounder flavor), 1/8-cup (you can always add more) fresh lemon juice, 1/2-tsp cooled cinnamon syrup, and a pinch of crushed pink peppercorns. Shake as above. Strain into two chilled glasses. Garnish the glass with a thin wedge of apple coated each side with lemon juice. And toast to the turkey.

I also riffed on another classic, the Stone Fence. Most recipes start with 2 oz. of bourbon, another American original, but they diverge from there. Pour over ice and top with fresh or hard cider is one possibility. I found a hard cider in the beer case at CM but didn’t much like it. I also tried Cidral, a Mexican apple soda. Nope. The straight juice made an OK but not distinctive drink. “Boiled cider” was another suggested additive. But what I liked best was either straight R.W. Knudsen Cider and Spice or organic apple juice mixed half and half with the reduced C&S. In any case, crushed pink peppercorn also worked, and a touch of the cinnamon syrup, good to have in your holiday drinks arsenal, wouldn’t hurt. Whatever variations you come up with (adding Martinelli’s Sparkling Cider was one I never got around to), try not to overwhelm the bourbon; it’s the soul of the drink. The apple juice is mostly there to make you feel less guilty. •


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