Brandy is on the rise in the South once again. Here's why that's good news for apple farmers

Alan Ward's land in Western North Carolina
Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

This story is part of Spirits of the South, a tour through some of the best bars and distilleries the South has to offer. We've also created some excellent craft cocktail recipes for you to try at home. See it all here.

Among Southern-made spirits, bourbon may be king. But the history of American-made fruit brandy is at least as old as Colonial America.

As settlers staked their claims on U.S. soil, they planted a flurry of fruit trees. Meanwhile, 17th-century land advertisements touted proprietary orchards and their suitability for brandy, by definition a distilled fruit spirit, and fermented apple cider. 

By 1904, there were approximately 1,300 fruit brandy distilleries in operation around the country. Apple brandy was big business. And then it simply wasn't. That's in part the fault of Prohibition, which led to the decline of domestic spirit making and the dwindling of the type of bitter-sharp apples better suited to drinking than eating. 

But in what could be a coup for American apple farmers and a win for imbibers looking for a regionally distinct product, European fruit trees like Binet Rouge and Amere de Berthencourt are being planted more widely on American soil again. 

Adam Ward poses with his dog, Wallace, in this file photo from 2016.

On rolling land in Henderson County, North Carolina, that his family has owned for nine generations, Alan Ward wants to grow a future for apple farmers. The owner behind St. Paul Mountain Vineyards and Appalachian Ridge Hard Cider, Ward has farming in his blood and a spirit for innovation, and he's working to add value to Western North Carolina fruit. He's already done that with grapes; St. Paul was the first farmer-owned commercial vineyard in Henderson County. 

Henderson County, which grows 65% of North Carolina's apples, is well-suited to profit from planting the right trees for making cider and spirits. Apple brandy and cider apples can potentially gross as much as 11 times more per pound than commodity juice apples, Ward explained, so there's a reason to invest in the process. 

"We want this to be a success story for our region," Ward said. "We're not looking for this to be something you'll find distributed in the grocery store. We're looking for this to be a farm product people here can make a living from."

Alan Ward stands behind the bar in his St. Paul Mountain Vineyards with some of the winery's European-style wine and a bottle of his Appalachian Ridge Artisan Ciders in this 2016 file photo.

Ward's ciders are European in style, with low residual sugar and plenty of structure. Appalachian Ridge's centerpiece apple spirit is the Pommeau-type Peter Arly, made with Appalachian Ridge cider blended with brandy and aged for seven years in French oak. Ward is eagerly awaiting a true French cognac still, delayed in transit by COVID-19, to ramp up on-site brandy production.

Ward, with Appalachian Ridge partner Marvin Owings, a retired Henderson County agricultural extension director, has traveled to the Normandy and Bordeaux regions of France for nearly a dozen years to absorb centuries-old craft cider and brandy traditions. "We'd like to be the Normandy of North America," Ward said.

But to be the Normandy of North America, one must have very distinct apples. Sweet eating apples are what concord grapes are to quality wine: essentially incompatible. But apples are Ward's and Owings' specialty. 

"We have probably 6,000 European varietal trees that we're growing and a nursery with another 6,000 for planting in the future," Ward said. "And we're constantly getting new varieties in."

Owings is also growing thousands of trees with cider potential in a Henderson County Cooperative Extension-controlled orchard, an experiment that aims to take the guesswork out of what can thrive in this Western North Carolina high country.

Henderson County farmers already have a leg up. With its distinct terroir, elevation and climate, the area is now a designated American Viticultural Area, or wine-growing region: the Crest of the Blue Ridge. Ward figures the area could be just as well-known for other types of distilled and fermented fruit. 

"Our goal is to produce the highest quality brandy and to grow the fruit locally that will produce world-quality brandies, not just any brandy," Ward said. "Because of our AVA and growing areas, we have the opportunity to produce something that's world-class."

This old barn in this file photo was renovated to serve as the home to Appalachian Ridge Artisan Ciders's tasting rooms.

About 150 miles southwest of Ward's land is Ellijay, a small city in Gilmer County, Georgia, that serves as the apple capital of the Southern state, drawing hordes of tourists each fall in an annual apple-picking migration. 

Justin Douglas, the founder of Simple Man Distillery in Atlanta, makes Smoked Apple Brandy with fruit from the fifth-generation Penland Apple House in Ellijay. It's part of a triumvirate of spirits highlighting Georgia-grown goods, including a vodka distilled from peaches and Gullah Geechie Gin, made with botanicals grown on Gilliard Farms. 

Douglas aims to showcase the agricultural bounty of his Southern state and while doing so, support the growers behind it. 

Justin Douglas, founder of Simple Man Distillery.

"For something like brandy to be sourced from a single, family-owned farm brings an extra level of authenticity to a world where it seems like everyone has a liquor label," he said.

Brandy, historically a byproduct of excess fruit, is another revenue stream for farmers whose income can be heavily impacted by the whims of the weather in a changing climate, Douglas said. "The first year I made vodka, the farm (I worked with) lost a huge part of its crop," he said. "Insurance kept the lights on, but there was so much profit loss."

For farmers like Ward, spirit making is also a way to address imperfection. His first cream sherry was an accident, a last-ditch effort to salvage a too-nutty Chardonnay. 

"We kept it in French oak for about six or seven years and made sherry from it, and it came out well," he said. "We saw that we could take something that wasn't perfect and make something good out of it it. That was my first spirit world experience."

Justin Douglas, founder of Simple Man Distillery.

It's a perfectly modern, sustainable practice with its roots in centuries of tradition. Ward likes to say he's going "back to the future" with most of his agricultural ventures. 

"We're going back to the past to cultivate these (trees), and we hope there's a future for these old varietals," he said. "As wine grapes have created a new revenue stream for  us, it's the same with apples — and pears, too — and farming is the key." 

More about Appalachian Ridge at www.saintpaulfarms.com/appalachian-ridge-hard-cider. More about Simple Man Distillery at simplemandistillery.com.

The Gatling Gun Cocktail

Gatling Gun

The French 75 got its name from the World War I 75mm field gun. In a similar fashion, this drink from Southern Kitchen is named after a predecessor of the modern machine gun invented by North Carolina native Dr. Richard Gatling. 

While most versions of a French 75 call for gin, Chris Hannah, a bartender at Arnaud’s French 75 Bar in New Orleans, insists the drink should be made with French cognac. So in a Southern twist, we’re using aged brandy from Louisville, Kentucky’s Copper & Kings American Brandy Company. To really kick up the apple flavor, use the distillery's Floodwall Apple Brandy. 

Ingredients

1 1/2 ounce aged brandy, such as Copper & Kings Floodwall Apple Brandy 

1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice 

1/2 ounce simple syrup

Ice cubes

3 ounces Foggy Ridge Serious Cider or other dry cider

Long lemon peel spiral, for garnish

Instructions

Combine the brandy, lemon juice and simple syrup in a shaker. Add ice cubes and shake vigorously until chilled. Double-strain the cocktail by holding a small, conical fine mesh strainer between the shaker tin with a Hawthorne strainer (or a cobbler shaker with its built-in strainer) and a champagne flute. Pour the cocktail through both strainers into the glass. Top with the cider. Garnish with the lemon peel spiral and serve immediately.

Smoked Apple Brandy Blood and Sand

A classic Blood and Sand melds the smokiness of Scotch with vermouth, cherry liqueur and orange juice. Somehow it works. And so does this variation, made with Simple Man Distillery's Smoked Apple Brandy. 

Ingredients

3/4 ounce of Smoked Apple Brandy

3/4 ounce sweet vermouth

3/4 ounce cherry liqueur

3/4 ounce orange juice

Long orange peel spiral, for garnish

Instructions

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add all of the ingredients except for the citrus peel and shake. Strain into a cocktail glass and then garnish with the orange peel. 

Brandy Alexander

The Brandy Alexander, for better or worse, made cocktails with cream popular at the start of the 20th century. The original version used gin, but the Brandy Alexander was the one that caught on and remained in vogue for decades, according to "The Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails."

Ingredients

1 ounce brandy

1 ounce heavy cream

1 ounce crème de cacao

Nutmeg

Instructions

Combine liquid ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake to chill. Strain into a coupe glass and garnish with fresh grated nutmeg.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

Sign up for my newsletter here.

Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com