From October to late May, those of us in the northern parts of the United States don’t have much in the way of local, fresh fruit – a staple of cocktail menus during the summer months.
But we do have apples (and sometimes pears), from sweet Cameos to tart, juicy Granny Smiths. Local orchards put their harvests into cold storage or even controlled-atmosphere facilities, so they stay crisp and juicy all winter long – until strawberries come back around in late spring.
Winter is a great time to refocus on these ubiquitous fruits, which tend to be eclipsed by pumpkin as the flavor of fall and imported citrus as it comes into season in midwinter.
While the number of varieties available from local orchards will dwindle as the season goes on, most orchards plan to keep a good half-dozen long-keeping varieties around for as long as they can – from crisp eating apples like Pink Lady to cooking types like Stayman Winesap and versatile varietals like Jonagold.
Storing a good variety of sweet and tart varieties also allows orchards and fruit farmers to keep pressing fresh cider all winter, too. And if you’re lucky, some of those orchards will process their apples even further into hard cider.
Where I live in Philadelphia, local orchards-turned-cideries like Big Hill Ciderworks, as well as Three Springs Fruit Farm and its new line of boozy beverages, Ploughman Cider, are experimenting with dry, off-dry, and hopped varieties. These are available at farmers markets, and bars and restaurants in the city.
But boosting your beverages with apple flavor doesn’t mean that you have to start with booze.
The simplest way to get that pure, unabashed apple flavor into your evening happy hour routine is to add cider, the fresh-pressed, unfiltered, and ideally unpasteurized juice of a mixture of sweet and tart fruit.
If you own a juicer – or, more improbably, a cider press – you can make your own fresh cider, ideally using a mixture of different local eating apples. More likely, you’ll be buying it already made.
A fresh cider that’s minimally processed – that is, unpasteurized or UV pasteurized – will have the best flavor. But you can use pasteurized cider as well.
The watery, sugary flavor of bottled apple juice evokes kindergarten snack time more than happy hour, but a good-quality shelf-stable juice like the Gravenstein variety from Trader Joe’s can work, too.
The simplest combination of fresh cider and alcohol is simply spiked cider, served cold or hot.
Note: If you’re heating it, be sure to add the booze after you’ve taken the mixture off the stove so that you don’t burn off that precious alcohol.
Bourbon, whiskey, and dark rum all work well. Or you can double down on the fruit flavor with some apple brandy. New Jersey-made Laird’s is a must where I live, but Calvados works too.
Mull with warming spices if you’re heating the cider, and be sure to garnish with an apple slice on the side of the rim when serving. Just soak it briefly in water with a splash of lemon juice added before garnishing your drink, to help preserve that white flesh and keep it from turning brown.
For a sparkling drink that’s lighter on the booze, fill a tumbler half full with ice.
Add half an ounce of apple brandy, then fill the glass two-thirds full with fresh cider.
Add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice or a dash of bitters (optional), top with seltzer, and stir.
If you’re entertaining a crowd, fresh cider makes a great basis for an apple sangria.
Start with half a gallon of cider in a large punch bowl. Add the juice of two lemons and a bottle of dry white wine like Pinot Grigio or a rose to taste – White Zinfandel from a box is great for this.
Add chunks of one red and one green (or golden) apple and half a lemon, thinly sliced, for garnish.
For a more grown-up take on cider, start with the kind that’s already boozy. I recommend eschewing the Woodchuck and other sweet ciders in favor of dry, off-dry, or semi-dry varieties that don’t taste so sugary – unless sweet is what you’re after.
Take a tip from the beer world and try a shandy.
Blend dry cider and a strong, spicy ginger beer like Reed’s Ginger Brew in equal parts. Start with a small amount of each, and taste to adjust the right balance of dry and winelike with sweet and spicy.
You can also try other shandy combinations: Apple brandy or your favorite sherry are good places to start.
Using sweeter hard cider? Blend with a dry white wine. This will also result in a boozier shandy.
Using something dry? Start with two parts dry hard cider to one part fresh to taste the full spectrum of apple flavor.
If you have a few weeks to wait, you can infuse hard alcohol with your own apple flavor and custom spices.
Place sliced sweet-tart apples, like Jonagold, in a quart jar.
Add whole spices if you like – think a cinnamon stick, a few cloves, an allspice berry, or a one-inch piece of fresh ginger.
Pour in vodka, grain alcohol like Everclear, bourbon, or whisky so that the fruit is fully covered.
Seal the jar and stash it in a cool, dark place like your cupboard or closet for anywhere from a few weeks to up to six months. Taste the infusion periodically and strain it when the flavor is to your liking.
Serve your infusion over ice with simple syrup to taste.
You can also add the syrup directly to the infused alcohol after the straining step. Just add a little bit at a time, and taste as you go.
Save Your Scraps
Fill a quart jar with the peels and cores and add spices, then spirits to cover as described above. Try to get the trimmings submerged in the alcohol before they start to brown.
To make your infused liquor into a tasty cocktail, you’ll need just a few more ingredients.
After icing and sweetening with simple syrup, add a splash of Frangelico, a squeeze of lemon, and top with seltzer for an Apple Pie Spritzer.
You can also use your peels to make a simple syrup with a punchy apple flavor.
Combine equal parts by volume of apple peels, water, and brown or white sugar in a saucepan.
Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for a few minutes until slightly thickened.
Cool, strain, and bottle, then store in the fridge. Add an ounce or two to any cocktail recipe that could use a punch of sweetness and apple flavor, or make your own apple soda by combining the syrup and seltzer to taste over ice.
A Simple Shrub
To preserve that flavor with a little more zing, try making an apple shrub.
Shrubs, also known as drinking vinegars, are a combination of vinegar, sugar, and fruit. And they make for a bracing, sweet-tart addition to alcoholic or non-alcoholic drinks.
There are two ways to make a shrub. One involves combining and heating the ingredients, then straining the mixture. The other way is to cold-infuse the ingredients together, resulting in a brighter, more flavorful shrub.
To make apple shrub using the cold method, remember the 1:1:1 ratio that fruit shrubs are traditionally based on. You can add more or less sugar depending on the tartness or sweetness of your apples and personal taste.
For shrub making, choose an apple variety that’s juicy with lots of flavor. First, peel and grate your apples. The more surface area you expose, the more apple flavor will infuse into the liquid.
Measure your grated apples, then add to a large bowl or jar. Be sure to choose a vessel that will accommodate three times the volume of your grated apples.
Next, add the same volume of sugar and stir well to combine with the apples. Cover and refrigerate the mixture overnight or for up to 24 hours.
When your apples and sugar are finished macerating, pull the bowl from the fridge and add the same volume of vinegar as you did apples and sugar. Apple cider vinegar is an obvious choice here, but you can use white vinegar as well – it will have a slightly sharper flavor.
Stir the mixture well to combine, then cover and place the bowl back in the refrigerator for a few more days. When that time is up, strain the mixture, taking care to press the apples against the screen of the strainer to get out all of the shrubby goodness in the fruit.
Decant the shrub into a jar and seal tightly. Serve the shrub combined with water or seltzer. Or, add sweet, tart flavor to cocktails made with vodka or gin.
Store your shrub in the refrigerator. The longer you refrigerate, the more the flavors will meld and mellow.
Now that you’ve got an arsenal of ways to combine apples with your favorite alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, we hope you’ll look at these long-keeping fruits in new ways.
With a little preparation and access to good ingredients, you can keep warm with seasonal fruit cocktails all winter long.
What’s your favorite spirit to pair with apple flavors? How will you use fresh or hard cider in your next drink recipe? Let us know in the comments!
Photo credit: Shutterstock.
About Alex Jones
Alex Jones is a local food consultant and writer based in Philadelphia. Evangelizing about local food is second nature to Alex, whether she’s working an artisan cheesemaker’s farmers market stand or developing growth strategies for her favorite small-scale artisans. Her favorite areas to work in currently are the artisan cheese and pastured meat supply chains. When she’s not working, Alex spends her time managing her usually-overstuffed fridge, growing vegetables, foraging for fruits around the city, playing tuba in a disco cover band, and hanging out with her partner Dr Thunder, Philadelphia’s karaoke superhero, and their two cats, Georgia and Li’l Mama. Alex’s favorite food is some kind of cheese on some kind of bread.