TAMWORTH — It takes sophisticated equipment and expertise to distill liquor. But, as New England colonists knew, you can make a powerful drink with just three ingredients: apples, a barrel and cold weather.
Known as “apple jack,” the process begins by using the apples to make cider, then fermenting the cider to make it mildly alcoholic, which was commonly done as a means to preserve the drink. Then, when winter comes, leave the barrel of cider outside overnight. In the morning, remove whatever ice has formed on top, leaving behind a more concentrated drink. Repeat this several times, and that mild cider can become something close to hard liquor.
“That tradition of cold jacking is a very northern, very New England thing,” said Jamie Oakes, distiller at Tamworth Distilling. It was a technique that settlers from Scotland and Ireland would have known about, and one which the craft distillery pays homage to with its Old Hampshire Applejack, which was released this fall and has jumped to the top of its sales charts.
Tamworth Distilling wants to do more with Old Hampshire, though. The company wants the product to be made the official state spirit, and they have enlisted the help of state Sen. Jeb Bradley, who has agreed to sponsor a bill to come before the next legislative session.
Unlike the hardy colonists, the small team at Tamworth Distilling makes Old Hampshire with heat, in a copper alembic still, of the style developed by French brandy makers and made by hand in Kentucky.
The Old Hampshire currently available at state liquor stores is 80-percent apple brandy and 20-percent neutral grain spirit, aged in oak barrels for three years. Later this month, the distillery will release a 150-bottle batch of bottled-in-bond Old Hampshire, which is 100-percent apple brandy that has been aged for four years.
Jillian Anderson, sales manager, said the bottled-in-bond release is especially significant to Tamworth Distilling. The Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 was written to establish a guarantee, backed by the federal government, that the contents of a bottle of liquor matched what the label purported. Prior to then, most of what was sold as a specific liquor, especially whiskey, was actually a base spirit that was colored or flavored to approximate the real thing.
As his last act as a sitting president, Grover Cleveland signed the Bottled in Bond Act into law. Today, only a handful of products meet the requirements to qualify as bottled in bond. To qualify, the product must be the result of one distilling season and by one distiller at one distillery. Then the product must be aged, under government supervision, at a federally bonded warehouse for at least four years, and bottled at 100 proof.
Cleveland was a summer resident of Tamworth, and when he left the White House, he retired to this small town, which counts some of his descendants among its current residents. Tamworth Distilling sits on Cleveland Hill Road.
It’s unusual for a state to adopt an official spirit – only a couple of other states have one – but Anderson said there’s a good case for Old Hampshire. There’s the connection to Cleveland, to the tradition of apple jack, and even to apples, which have been grown in New Hampshire since the first colonists arrived from Europe. Old Hampshire is created with apples – macintosh, cortland, crispin and honeycrisp – from Carter Hill Orchard, in Concord, which dates back to the 1700s.
Apples are featured in several of Tamworth Distilling’s products. There’s the Pommeau, which, at 50-proof, is a lighter version of its aged apple brandy, and also the 60-proof Cider Rye, which is rye whiskey blended with apple cider. Camp Robber, which is another apple brandy-based product that the distillery offered while Old Hampshire was aging, will be phased out.
While much of the current spirit market is focused on whiskey – Tamworth Distilling is currently aging a bourbon that will be ready next year – Oakes said that brandy is positioned to make a splash, especially among whiskey drinkers looking for something new. Brandy also offers small, craft distillers such as Tamworth the ability to feature local fruit.
Old Hampshire, said Anderson, carries the aroma of apple but little of the fruit’s sweetness. Instead, the drink has flavors from the oak barrels it was aged in, similar to other aged spirits. It can be enjoyed straight, in an old fashioned, or in a cocktail she calls the “Golden Dome,” which is a splash of lemon juice, a little honey syrup and a couple of ounces of Old Hampshire, shaken until frothy and poured over ice. She will be serving that drink at the Governor’s Christmas party, to be held Friday at the Bridges House in Concord, where there will surely be legislators who will soon decide Old Hampshire’s fate.
Bradley said he’s sponsoring the bill as a service to a business within his district. “They approached me, and it would certainly be helpful to Tamworth Distilling to have their product be labeled the New Hampshire spirit, to help their marketing and be able to expand.”
He also said it could be helpful to the state’s tourism industry.
“I think that New Hampshire has done a much better job of marketing itself for people that want to visit our state and happen to like good New Hampshire wine, or in this case, spirits… We have a number of really good microbrews, we’re becoming known for the quality of our beer, and Tamworth Distilling has some really good products, promoting them in this way helps promote visitors to New Hampshire and to Tamworth,” Bradley said.
He said he’s more of a beer drinker and hasn’t yet tried Old Hampshire, but he’ll have to have at least a taste of it before the bill comes up for a vote.
The measure has found at least one detractor already. The Concord Monitor ran an editorial on Nov. 29 urging lawmakers to “pour this idea down the drain, pronto.”
The newspaper’s objection focused on the state label being applied to not just a specific product, but one made by a particular brand. “New Hampshire is home to more than a dozen distilleries. Putting the state seal on a product from one of them would not only be unfair, it would set a terrible precedent. It would only be a matter of time before we had ‘Tide, the official state detergent’ and ‘Fruit of the Loom, the official state underwear.’”
Bradley said he hasn’t heard from any lawmakers who oppose the idea, but he would welcome such a discussion.
“There is a tradition in New Hampshire of applejack, we obviously, for a long, long time, we have had the growth of apple orchards in New Hampshire. There is somewhat of a renaissance of cider, and now this spirit. There may be a debate if this is the best to designate, and that’s fair, that’s part of the process,” Bradley said.