“At five o’clock I was in the Hotel Crillon, waiting for Brett. She was not there, so I sat down and wrote some letters. They were not very good letters but I hoped their being on Crillon stationery would help them. Brett did not turn up, so about quarter to six I went down to the bar and had a Jack Rose with George the barman.” Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
In David A. Embury’s 1948 The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, a chapter called “Six Basic Cocktails” outlines the preparation of The Manhattan, The Martini, The Daiquiri, The Side Car and The Jack Rose. Of the six, the first four never really lost their popularity, even if the manner in which they were made was largely perverted for many years. The Side Car has been like a perennial AAA baseball player, just on the bubble, called up when injuries bring down superstars and when rosters expand at the end of the season, but never sticking for long in the bigs. But The Jack Rose largely faded into obscurity, the province of cocktail geeks alone, a player that made a splash during his rookie year, but never could really hit the curve down and away and nearly faded into oblivion.
And that’s too bad. Because The Jack Rose has lurid competing claims on its origin, features only three easily acquired (or made) ingredients and highlights the oldest continuously distilled American liquor. It’s also delicious, with wide appeal to many palates and a perfect pre dinner tipple.
A is For Applejack: A Reasonably Lengthy Note
Early cocktail books generally listed only two applejack cocktails—the Jack Rose and a Manhattan variation called The Star, featuring the applejack with vermouth and bitters. This paucity of applejack drinks is surprising given that Laird & Company were granted American’s first commercial distillery license in 1780, opening up shop in Scobeyville, NJ. This grant was most assuredly payback for Robert Laird’s service under George Washington during the Revolutionary War, during which Laird soldiered, apparently well, but also supplied the troops with his family’s homemade applejack. Washington so liked it, that he requested the Laird family recipe for his own use, and began to produce his own applejack at Mount Vernon.
Robert Laird’s ancestor, William Laird, was a Scotsman and a distiller who emigrated to Monmouth County, New Jersey in 1698 and apparently went right to work at his old trade in his new home. Finding a paucity of barley in the new world, he did what humans have always done when they can’t produce the liquor they’re used to making because the raw materials are lacking—ferment something else. In Colonial New Jersey, apples were abundant, and the human quest for intoxication will always spur innovation. Applejack was an immediate hit, especially in New Jersey, where the people were colloquially called “Applejackers” and its gospel was spread as America moved West, as evangelist John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed, not only handed out apple seeds to his followers, he also taught them how to make applejack. Evangelicals in the early 1800s were apparently a whole lot more fun than evangelicals today.
So what is it? In the simplest terms, applejack is merely an apple brandy, made from distilling hard apple cider and then aging the finished product in charred oak barrels for a period of time, usually 4-8 years, but sometimes longer. The closest product to applejack is Calvados, the French apple (and pear) brandy that is also aged, but there are significant differences in production that make the two spirits very, very different.
Calvados producers generally use cider apples as their base. Cider apples are generally sour, suitable for cooking, baking and distilling, but not for eating off the tree. Applejack, on the other hand, uses eating apples (and a lot of them—a single bottle of the excellent Laird’s 100 Proof Straight Apple Brandy contains twenty pounds of apples), resulting in a spirit that is perceived as sweeter than Calvados, and is less refined and more woolly, a product of frontier America rather than refined Europe.
The barrels are also different. While producers of both products use oak, Calvados producers do not char their barrels in the same manner as applejack makers. That char gets into the finished product, lending a whiskey like character to applejack that is absent in Calvados.
Over the years, as applejack faded from the American drinking consciousness, producers other than Laird’s gradually fell away, and the Laird family made almost all of their money producing other spirits, most of which come in large plastic bottles with handles and are consumed by frat boys and stone drunks. Check that handle of awful vodka lurking in the back of your liquor cabinet—it it says “Scobeyville, NJ” on the label, it was made at the oldest distillery in the country.
But they did keep the flame of applejack lightly flickering, waiting for the rest of us to rediscover it. Today, all of the applejack and apple brandy production comes from a facility in North Garden, Virginia featuring apples from the Shenandoah Valley, and they are still almost the only game in town, with only a handful of regional micro-distilleries providing (excellent) competition.
The Gambler vs. The Famous Mixologist Or What’s in A Name?
For years, it was widely assumed that this cocktail was created in honor of “Bald Jack” Rose, a gambler and general thug who, in 1912, was implicated in the Becker-Rosenthal case in New York, during which he enthusiastically perjured himself to convict—and send to the chair—Charles Becker, a corrupt New York City police officer who ran the gambling squad and had been shaking Rose down to the tune of $10,000 a week. It’s a great story, but most likely untrue, as The Jack Rose comes up in the Police Gazette in 1905, with the drink credited to one Frank J. May, employed at Gene Sullivan’s Café in Jersey City, New Jersey. Apparently, Mr. May preferred to be called Jack Rose, and by 1905, The Gazette was certain he was “famous as a mixologist.”
The Old Waldorf Bar Days, published in 1931 offers another theory on The Jack Rose, claiming that the drink was named for its pretty pink color, after the Jacquemot Rose, which is probably closer to the truth. The Jack Rose is a pretty pink color, and using Occam’s Razor, it is probably most likely that whoever invented the drink named it for the base spirit (“Jack”) and the color of the finished drink (“Rose”), and given New Jersey’s affinity for applejack, the drink could very well have come from the Garden State, from the hands of Mr. May.
A Note on Ingredients: Grenadine
If the only grenadine you’ve ever had has come from a bottle labeled “Rose’s” or “Finest Call” or is a bright, neon red, you have not had grenadine. Before it was a mixture of high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavor and red dye, it was a true syrup, made from pomegranates, with linguistic origins tied to the Spanish word for pomegranate (Granda) and the French for grenade (Grenade).
Unfortunately for the Jack Rose, and for civilization in general, pomegranates faded from mass agricultural production for a long while, and, as anyone who has ever opened one to eat knows, are labor intensive to deal with. The result? Real grenadine vanishes from most of the world and we were left with pale, sickly sweet imitations that give the stuff a bad name.
Fortunately, with the rise of PomWonderful Juice, pomegranate cultivation is back in business and small producers are making real grenadine again, with sweetness balanced by the tartness of real pomegranates and a depth of flavor you can’t find in Rose’s and its ilk. It is also incredibly easy to make yourself, with a basic version requiring only pomegranate juice and sugar, while more complex versions incorporate some pomegranate molasses, rosewater, or hibiscus flowers to add subtle notes to the finished product. Use the real stuff and your Jack Rose will sing. Use the fake stuff and it will sulk.
A Much Shorter Note on Applejack
As applejack sales fell off, Laird’s diversified their line, largely to save money. What is currently bottled as Laird's Applejack is not what our early Jersey ancestors would have known, as the bottle contains only thirty percent apple brandy, with the remainder filled out by neutral grain spirits (aka Vodka). It is light bodied, and easy going, not nearly as unruly as an applejack should be. It will work in your Jack Rose if it is all that is available, but it will not be the best it can be.
Laird’s has three 100% apple products in their current line-up. The one you want for your cocktails is the 100 proof. Confusingly, in some states it is called Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy and in others Laird’s Bottled in Bond Apple Brandy, but it has that whiskey and apple character that marks a true applejack and it makes a damn fine cocktail indeed.
A Note on Ingredients: Lemon or Lime?
The third and final component of the Jack Rose is a sour citrus juice. Most, but not all, early sources specify lime juice, while some call for lemon. That confusion has persisted in modern cocktail books, with very good resources sometimes differing on the choice. Given the whiskey like character of the applejack, it would seem that lemon would be a more logical choice, as those barrel notes are not usually well enhanced by lime. But, as with The Lion's Tail, there’s a wild card at play here, this time in the form of the grenadine. Pomegranate and lime get along swimmingly, and their interplay really works wonders in the background of the Jack Rose, somehow bringing forth the apple notes of the spirit in a way that lemon does not. Go with lime, use lemon in a pinch, but always squeeze fresh.
The Jack Rose
2 oz Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy
1 oz Fresh Lime Juice
½ oz Real Grenadine
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and shake until very cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and serve without garnish.
Simple Cold Process Grenadine (adapted from David Wondrich)
1 cup sugar
1 cup 100% Pomegranate Juice
1-2 additional ounces of sugar
Combine 1 cup sugar and the pomegranate juice in a sealable jar and shake like hell until fully dissolved. Add the remaining sugar and repeat
Simple Hot Process Grenadine (adapted from Jared Brown & Anistatia Miller)
2 cups 100% Pomegranate Juice
1 cup sugar
Add pomegranate juice to a saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until reduced by half. Add sugar and stir to dissolve. Allow to cool and then bottle
Fancy Grenadine (Bill Norris)
1 ½ cups 100% pomegranate juice
1 ½ cups sugar
2 oz pomegranate molasses
1 tsp rosewater
½ cup hibiscus flowers
Combine pomegranate juice, sugar and hibiscus flowers in a saucepan and heat until just boiling, stirring to dissolve the sugar. When the sugar is dissolved, add the molasses and stir until well incorporated into the syrup. Remove from heat, strain out hibiscus flowers and allow to cool. When at room temperature, add the rosewater and bottle.
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