There’s nothing more American than apple pie, unless it’s the alcoholic version of apple pie, apple brandy.
“Apple brandy is about the most American of all spirits, even more than bourbon,” says Colin Keegan, owner of Santa Fe Spirits distillery, which makes and bottles apple brandy locally and sells it all over the country. “This is how the pioneers made their hard-proof alcohol. You have to farm grain, and you need a lot of it, but everybody had an apple tree in their yard.”
What people think of as “brandy” is usually made from grapes, like cognac or Armagnac, and if low-quality, can be akin to cough syrup. But brandy can be made from other fruits, like apples and pears, and fine brandy is like the soul of wine — delicate, smooth and very alcoholic. Keegan credits apple brandy for kicking off his business, in that same spirit of do-it-yourself, at-home experimentation.
“Apple brandy was actually what started the distillery,” he says. “I used to do apple pickings in the fall with my friends, and we pressed it into apple cider because it would last longer.” But when his garage filled up with cider bottles, he realized he had to save space somehow. Reducing the water content was the obvious solution.
“If you distill it, it’s a 10-1 ratio, so we started making brandy,” he says. “It’s so easy. You squash the apples, make apple juice, there’s natural yeast on the skins so they ferment by themselves into hard ciders. … Everybody liked it and could taste the apple in it, so we thought if we barrel-aged it, it would be more interesting.”
Keegan’s apple brandy is aged for a minimum of a year in new, American oak, 25-gallon casks. “It pushes the oak flavor a bit — if you age in a 50-gallon cask, the surface-to-liquid ratio is less, so you don’t get as much oak infusion,” he explains. “When you age in oak, the analogy is like soaking a tea bag. The first cup’s strong, the second cup is weaker. That’s what pulling the oak flavor out of a barrel is like.”
The brandy itself is made up of roughly 80 percent tart Jonathan and Gala apples, with about 20 percent of sweeter Golden Delicious apples. Santa Fe Spirits’ apple brandy contains only apple juice, water and yeast, with no back sweetening or added sugar.
“There’s so much sugar in [the Golden Delicious], it really just turns to alcohol,” Keegan says. “You really don’t get much apple flavor left. The Jonathan and Gala are tarter, with more tannins. That gives a lot more flavor. You get a lot of flavor off the skins.” According to Keegan, it takes about 120 pounds of apples to make one bottle of brandy.
If you want something really special, you can buy a bottle of the apple brandy with a whole apple inside, floating suspended in the golden, 80-proof ichor like an optical illusion or a magic trick. You can try to come up with theories about how they got the apple past the narrow bottleneck, but there’s no trick to it — the apple is actually grown inside the bottle.
“It’s really something they do in Europe,” Keegan says. “I think what they used to believe is it helped the flavor of the brandy. When I was shopping for nice brandies, I’d see them in that section. When I started the distillery, I started to research it.” The technique is most often done with pears grown inside bottles filled with pear liquor called Poire Williams, a clear, unaged version of the fruit spirit (called eau de vie). In France, the apple version is called Calvados and the apple inside is referred to as a “pomme prisonniere.”
The existence of the pomme prisonniere version of Santa Fe Spirits’ apple brandy is an unlikely miracle. Last year, Keegan (yes, he does it himself) hung 300 bottles containing 300 apples from 300 branches in the trees in his orchard. This involves suspending a glass bottle from a tree branch in a little purpose-made crocheted hammock (Keegan also crochets these himself, an activity he describes as “therapeutic, like adult coloring books”) and then a branch with an apple bud on it must be inserted into the neck of the bottle and encouraged to grow upward.
“You hang them upside down because you don’t want the rain to get in,” explains Keegan. “You ideally want the apple to be dead center in the bottle so it can grow at least to the walls of the bottle.”
And then there’s logistics: You have to find an apple on a branch that has a branch above it that’s strong enough to hold the weight of the bottle.
“A lot of apples grow at the very ends of the branches, and the branches are wispy out there,” Keegan says. “So when you go up the tree, they get shorter and shorter.” Then, of those 300 original apples-in-bottles, about 180 lasted (some were blown out of the trees by the wind; sometimes the apples inside would die for no reason; sometimes the stems would snap; sometimes the apple falls out).
“There’s quite an attrition rate,” Keegan says. “Nearly half.” Then, out of that 180, they sort the apples inside for size. “Any smaller than a golf ball look ridiculous, so we throw those away,” he says.
The apples are then washed in a light citric acid solution — just enough to preserve the fruit, but not enough to adulterate the brandy. The apples themselves sometimes look a bit zombified, with delicate brown veins dappling the surface, appropriate for Halloween. Some went totally brown anyway, so out those went.
“We ended up bottling about 90 bottles,” Keegan says. “We lose about two-thirds. It’s a labor of love.”
And then, of course, there’s the uncooperative weather. The apples that make up the brandy used to come from Keegan’s orchard in Tesuque, though now he gets most of them from Colorado because New Mexico’s notorious early freezes make for an unreliable supply.
“I’ve got about 100 trees, 50 of which produce,” Keegan says. “Last year, we could have filled about 20 truckloads of apples easily from the orchard. This year we’ve got literally a bushel. That’s why there really isn’t a New Mexico apple-growing group. Because we get a warm March and a cold April.”
But only Keegan has the patience to go up into the trees and hang hundreds of bottles from hundreds of branches, so they didn’t bottle any this year, though they still have bottles left from the year before. If you buy a bottle with an apple in it, you know that apple came from only a few miles away.
Apple Brandy is a versatile spirit. You can drink it straight, of course, or with a dash of soda. At the Santa Fe Spirits tasting room at 308 Read St. and its distillery at 7505 Mallard Way, staff make a cocktail called a Stormy Orchard with the apple brandy, tonic water and bitters in the summer, or use it to make a classic sidecar when it gets colder. But when the snow is flying, what you really want is an apple brandy hot toddy, in place of bourbon or whiskey. It is, after all, 80 proof. A bottle of the apple brandy goes for $89 with the apple inside and $42 without it. You can find Keegan’s apple brandy at all the usual suspects: Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and most liquor stores. But if you want one of the rare few with the apple inside, you have to buy it at the Read Street tasting room.
And once the brandy is gone, what becomes of the apple?
“If you’re pretty adept with a long filleting knife, you can try to cut it up and get it out,” laughs Keegan. “If you smash the bottle, you’ll get glass in it, so don’t do that. Otherwise you just look at it.”
Santa Fe Spirits downtown tasting room
When: Open 3 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday (winter hours)
More information: Call 505-780-5906
Santa Fe Spirits distillery
When: Tours available 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, reservations required.