Craft cider rises from the ashes

Above: Tuthilltown's microdistilled gin and vodka made with New York State apples, on display at a recent cider tasting for the media at the Stockade Tavern in Kingston. Photo by Lissa Harris.

The spirit of Johnny Appleseed is alive and well in New York's orchards. (And if you think Johnny Appleseed was all about pie and juice, think again.)

The hard cider industry in the United States has been a shadow of its former self since Prohibition, when apple orchards were razed to put a stop to cidermaking. But with the recent rise of interest in microbreweries and small-batch distilling, hard cider is once again ascendent. And in New York State, where legal reform has helped the wine and spirits industry undergo a dramatic renaissance in recent years, advocates are hoping to put hard cider on the map once more.

Though cidermaking has a long history in the region, much of its tradition has been lost in the last century. And while beer, whiskey and wine resurged after the end of Prohibition, cider has remained something of a novelty in America. But that's changing fast: In the last year, according to a Chicago market research firm, cider sales have grown an astonishing 50 percent.

A far cry from the syrupy brown nonalcohoic drink that shares its name, hard cider can be as crisp as a Belgian witbier or as sweet as a Riesling. American craft cidermakers are just beginning to tap into the full range of what can be made from apples -- a range that includes not just table cider and apple wines, but spirits like gin and vodka.

Earlier this year, Ulster County's Tuthilltown distillery introduced Half Moon Gin, a small-batch gin made with local wheat and apples.

In blending the gin and selecting the botanical flavorings, Tuthilltown distiller Joel Elder sought to express the underlying flavor of the spirit, not to mask it with herbal infusions.

"The herb bill was created to work in balance with the spirits," he said. "That's why we call it 'orchard gin.' I don't know of anybody else who is using apples for gin."

Tuthilltown also produces several vodkas made from 100 percent apple spirits: the batch-distilled Heart of the Hudson and premium triple-distilled Spirit of the Hudson.

If New York State cider is on its way back up, it is surely thanks in large part to Doc's Draft Hard Cider, founded in 1989 in the Orange County town of Warwick.

"We're one of the oldest producers in New York State," said Mark Morton -- a fact that speaks volumes about the state of the young industry.

With a sales volume of about 100,000 gallons a year, Doc's is also one of the larger cider producers in the Northeast.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Aaron Burr Cidery in Wurtsboro, a new craft cidery that just began selling commercially in the summer of 2012.

Aaron Burr's Andy Brennan said that the emerging local cider movement -- among advocates and 'foodies' as well as cidermakers -- is helping small producers like him make their mark.

"There's a camaraderie," he said. "Instead of being your own little island, if you have a problem with fermentation, you can talk to somebody who shares your pain."

This kind of skill-sharing and craftsmanship in the cider industry is a mission for New Hampshire cidermaker Louisa Spencer, of Farnum Hill Cider in Lebanon. Spencer, who sees cidermaking as a craft akin to the production of a good red wine, believes the Northeastern U.S. could lead the world in craft cider.

"This area makes the best apples in the world," she said. "We could really blow away a lot of the ciders of the world. If you bring a winemaking spirit to cidermaking, you're going to get something that brings honor to the landscape."

All this week, New York City and the Hudson Valley have been celebrating the second-annual Cider Week with tastings and events. On Friday, October 19, Peekamoose Restaurant in Big Indian will feature a special three-course cider tasting menu. Across the river, Hudson Wine Merchants will host a tasting of Warwick Valley cider and spirits, from 4:30 to 7pm. For more information on cider events in the Hudson Valley and New York City through this weekend, see the Cider Week website. Cider Week is organized by the Glynwood Apple Project, an effort to encourage craft cidermaking and entrepreneurship in the Hudson Valley.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Doc's Draft Hard Cider produced 100,000 cases of cider a year; the correct figure is 100,000 gallons, which is the equivalent of about 50,000 cases. Apologies for the error.