Aside from the ubiquitous (and often dreaded) pumpkin spice latte, there’s perhaps no beverage more closely associated with the fall season than apple cider. The combination of autumn fruit flavor, appealing spice notes, and comforting warmth makes cider an ideal drink to bring to a football game in a Thermos or to sip from a mug in front of a roaring fire … especially if you add some spirits to the mix. In the interest of helping you craft the most well-balanced and satisfying spiked apple ciders possible, we asked nine bartenders to offer their best liquor recommendations for this purpose.
The slight sweetness and rich wood notes of bourbon whiskey pair harmoniously with the tartness of a good apple cider, and lead bartender Jennifer Ramin-Azad of Honey Salt in Vancouver, British Columbia particularly favors the classic version made by Buffalo Trace. “Buffalo Trace is one of my favorite spirits because of its strong caramel and nutmeg notes, which go great in a warm apple cider! The bourbon itself is quite subtle, so it adds the perfect amount of kick without the cider becoming overly boozy in flavor. What’s more, it’s reasonably priced, making it perfect for this holiday season!” Ramin-Azad explains.
Another whiskey well-suited to cider, American rye adds a welcome dose of complexity to this cool-weather treat. Lead bartender Blade Moore of Crossroads Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri explains why Rittenhouse Rye should be your cider spirit of choice: “Rye generally lends itself well to cider because of its subtle spice and soft fruit finish. Rittenhouse, specifically, is the best to pair with apple ciders. As a result of the 100 proof, it’s bold enough to cut through a sweet cider [while also] bringing in additional fruit and caramel notes to complement the fall classic.”
Scotch whisky’s bold, peat-forward flavor profile sometimes overwhelms other cocktail ingredients, but when it comes to apple cider, the nuance and the umami present in Scotch provides a pleasant balance to the cider’s sweetness and tang. New York City mixologist Jane Danger of Pernod Ricard opts for The Glenlivet 14-Year Cognac Cask Selection when making hot apple cider, telling us that this single malt Scotch is “my mulled apple cider go-to. It began as a limited edition called “Captain’s Reserve.” This Scotch is aged in ex-bourbon, sherry, and Cognac casks. It’s got something for every aged-spirit imbiber.”
Whiskey may be a popular liquor to add to apple cider, but it’s far from your only option. Many fans of this beverage also enjoy a slug of flavorful spiced rum in their cider, and COO and beverage director Patrick Kish of Florence’s Lowcountry Kitchen in Charleston, South Carolina gives a particular shout-out to Sailor Jerry’s Spiced Rum. “Sailor Jerry’s Spiced Rum is the perfect spirit to add to apple cider to create an ultra-seasonal cocktail. It’s bold and smooth with notes of vanilla and cinnamon that enhance the fall-like, comforting flavors of apple cider even further,” says Kish.
Brandy frequently makes an appearance in mulled cocktails, and hot apple cider and apple brandy appear together on beverage lists on a regular basis. But if you’re up for some fall-fruit variety, try swapping in a pear brandy, like California-made St. George Pear Brandy. Beverage manager Angela Ryskiewicz of 6th & La Brea in Los Angeles claims that “I love adding St. George Pear Brandy to fall cocktails. And it is so good in a cider! The brandy uses organic Bartlett pears, and the combination of the crisp pear flavor with apple cider and served warm with a cinnamon stick gives you all the fall feels.”
Tequila? In apple cider? Might sound like a recipe for a truly tragic hangover … but, in actuality, an oak-aged reposado tequila like the one made by Altos brings earthy flavor elements that play nicely with the brightness of apple cider. “In a conversation that’s no doubt dominated by whiskeys and rums, tequila is my go-to [spirit for cider]. Altos Reposado is aged to the upper limit of reposado tequila, so it brings a bit more of that oak and allspice flavor to the table, which goes well with a nice cider. It makes for a great take on a fall margarita,” advises owner/operator Christopher Bidmead of Bar Methods in Brooklyn, New York.
For a wine-based alternative to brandy-spiked cider, try adding Madeira wine to your warm apple beverage. This Portuguese dessert wine offers luxurious, fruit-forward notes and a rich sweetness. To really make the flavor characteristics of the Madeira pop in your cider, try this tip from beverage manager Melissa Reigle of Byblos in Miami Beach, Florida: “If you want something rich and comforting [in your cider], Madeira is the way to go. Splash Lillet Blanc in your Madeira cider for a delightful complexity of flavor.”
Italian amari, herbal liqueurs known for their digestive properties, are experiencing a popularity resurgence on cocktail lists these days, and beverage director Cody Henson of The Alida Hotel in Savannah, Georgia thinks that the amaro made by the Averna brand is highly conducive to spiked apple cider. “I really like spiking cider with amaro, especially Averna. It’s kind of sweet, but it’s also bitter, [which] balances with the cider. A delicious amaro adds a lot of depth and flavor, but it’s also lower in alcohol, in case you’re not trying to party hard on an autumn evening. Bonus points if you’re mixing an amaro in with some dry, French cider,” Henson tells us.
For a cold-weather apple cocktail that veers away from the spiked-cider norms, try using aquavit, a classic Scandinavian herbal liqueur, as your cider spirit. According to owner/head bartender Sean Ulmstead of Kingfisher in Durham, North Carolina, “Apple cider naturally lends itself to barrel-aged spirits that have vanilla and spice and woodsy notes, such as dark rum, bourbon, and rye whiskey. But if you wanted to try something unusual, I think aquavit could be really nice [in apple cider]. It’s a Nordic spirit distilled with caraway and star anise. That would make for a lighter cocktail that also brings along spices that are familiar to apples. I like Krogstad, which is made in Portland, Oregon.”
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