Made by distilling cider, apple brandy has nearly as long a history in America as it does in Europe. The first mention of it is from 1553 in Normandy, France. And as America's oldest distilled spirit, it was before the 17th century that apples were being run through stills on this side of the Atlantic.
There are notable differences between New and Old World approaches. "A lot of American brandies are made with sweet eating apples—Golden Delicious, Macoun, Gala," says Robert Krueger, task force head bartender at JF Restaurants, "whereas a mix of bitter, sour, and other apples are used for distilling Calvados," the classic Normandy brandy.
Another distinction is the oak. "Generally speaking, American apple brandies tend to be sweeter and more vanilla-forward because of the use of charred, new American oak, leading to a faster extraction of the oak sugars versus toasted European oak barrels, which have more tannins and spice," explains Flavien Desoblin, owner of New York's The Brandy Library and Copper and Oak.
Whether you like the more "elegant and complex" European style or prefer the approachable American one, there's an apple brandy out there for you. Below you'll find a list of our expert's picks for the best apple brandies to drink right now.
Best Overall: St. George Spirits California Reserve
- Region: California
- ABV: 35%
- Tasting Notes: Baked apple, honey, cake spices
"They do impeccable distillations at St. George," says Krueger. "There's a nod to tradition but with everything modern in the production." At their state-of-the-art facility in Alamdeda, California, the prolific California outfit takes a field blend of apples sourced from a regional family orchard, distills it, and ages it in a combination of French and American oak for a brandy that Desoblin calls "quite powerful, quite rich."
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Best for Sipping: Osocalis Rare Alambic Brandy
- Region: California
- ABV: 40%
- Tasting Notes: Fresh apples, brown sugar, pastry
Desoblin declares this New World bottle “tremendous” for its "Old World take" on apple brandy. Aged in French oak, it's a dead ringer, he says, for "a 20-year-old brandy from Normandy." He likes its balance of richness with “vibrant, fruity, crushed-apple aromas,” and the “many-layered complexity” that comes on in “explosive” waves of apple expression.
Best Budget: Laird's Straight 86 proof
- Region: New Jersey
- ABV: 43%
- Tasting Notes: Caramel, apple, vanilla
The nation's original apple brandy, first produced in 1698 by a Scottish immigrant to New Jersey, Laird's is "super affordable," says Krueger. Though the distillery invented the blended applejack category in the 1970s, mixing the brandy with neutral grain spirits, his pick is this 86-proof straight brandy, made like it was back in the Colonial period. Desbolin agrees, calling it "an ideal mixer," especially for brandy sours. Plus, it's one of the only apple brandies produced by a woman, Lisa Laird, who runs this 322-year-old family business.
Best 100 Proof: Black Dirt
- Region: New York
- ABV: 50%
- Tasting Notes: Vanilla, cinnamon, caramelized apple
Produced at Warwick Winery and Distillery, home to the popular Doc's Cider, this apple brandy shows "a great balance between the fruit and the age," says Krueger. "It would satisfy a whiskey drinker." It exhibits the flavors of the wood sugars extracted during four or more years of maturation in charred American oak barrels, making it "a little more powerful, a little richer, a little more aggressive than others," says Desoblin.
Best for Cocktails: Copper and Kings Floodwall
- Region: Kentucky
- ABV: 50%
- Tasting Notes: Apples, vanilla, cinnamon
When you're making a cocktail, it's good to have some extra proof to work with, says Krueger, of this high-ABV apple brandy. "Proper aging in a mix of barrels gives it depth and those rancio (earthy, nutty) flavors that enhance a cocktail," he notes. Desoblin lauds it for its "overall versatility," "cool, modern-looking branding" that shines on a home bar, and most uniquely, the "sonic maturation process" in which distillers blast rock music in the barrel room to vibrate the whiskey against the wood, enhancing its aging.
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Best Innovative: Clear Creek Reserve
- Region: Oregon
- ABV: 40%
- Tasting Notes: Fresh apples, oak tannins
Clear Creek's original owner, Steve McDuffy, was "a pioneer in fruit brandy," says Desoblin, "doing everything in a very Alsace way." Though the company has changed hands, Krueger says it's still an innovator—"a West Coast operation making serious nods to the Calvados style," using new and old French Limousin oak and decidedly American fruit. This 8-year-old brandy is distilled from 100% Golden Delicious apples grown in Washington's Yakima Valley.
Best Calvados: Christian Drouin Calvados Sélection
- Region: France
- ABV: 40%
- Tasting Notes: Fresh fruit, raw apples
Surprisingly affordable, the Christian Drouin Calvados line "runs the gamut of ages and vintages," says Krueger, and even the 25-year-old stuff "wouldn't shock you at its price point."
The Sélection expression is surprisingly good for Drouin's entry-level Calvados line. It uses both apples and pears in the distillate and is then matured in sherry oak casks, making for a dry, complex sipper.
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Betsy Andrews is a freelance journalist specializing in food and drink, travel, and the environment, and has been writing about wine and spirits for two decades. Betsy has written for Liquor.com since May 2020. Her work has appeared in Food & Wine, Eating Well, The Wall Street Journal, SevenFifty Daily, VinePair, Wine Enthusiast, Travel & Leisure, and more.