CIDER: Up Your Cocktail Game

Updated: Mar 16, 2020

Cider: great in a cocktail and an all around good stiff drink. —INGRAIN, Spring 2019

Fancy spirit cider cocktails

STORY / Allison June Mitchell

Surely we’re all up to speed on the ingredients-first motto of the urban mixologist. (Does anyone even use the word mixologist anymore?) Bar cart classics like wormwood-laced spirits, fresh egg whites from the backyard coop, and early-20th-century finds like acid phosphate (a slightly sour flavoring used at soda fountains) are routine sightings in today’s daily cocktail grind. It’s time a proper farmhouse cider was invited back into our cocktail arsenal.

And not the ciders that became popular in the 1980s and 1990s with a flavor profile akin to boxed apple juice, which are advisably left on the grocery store shelf. We’re talking about the farmhouse ciders made in France, England, Spain, and back in the day (and now again) in select apple-producing regions of the United States, where a mix of apples are grown specifically for cidermaking. These are the robust, complex ciders we imagine American revolutionaries were sipping deep in the woods of Vermont while plotting their foils. (One of the most famous Revolutionary War cocktails, the Stone Fence, called for rye whiskey and hard apple cider.)


The ciders made by early German and British immigrants in New England were true farmhouse ciders. Like in traditional winemaking, they were naturally fermented thanks to the wild yeasts present on the fruit and in the surrounding environment. Wood barrels and similar containers were convenient storage vessels during those early cidermaking (and distilling and brewing) days.

These days wood is appreciated for the layered nuances (aroma! flavor!) it gives a beverage: the French or other new oak barrels favored by winemakers (what we use at Virtue for most of our releases) and the second-use whiskey barrels still rich with the character of what it housed previously (more commonly used for aging beers).

Ingredients also have evolved over the years. A traditional farmhouse cider is made purely from apples, but a craft cidermaker today might include ingredients like seasonal fruits (cherries, grapes) or wildflower honey.

So what makes a proper farmhouse cider an excellent cocktail companion? Champagne-ability. The palatable “sparkle” of ciders lends a refreshing mouthfeel, and dry ciders have few residual sugars, which gives the mix master free reign over the sweetness, tartness, or bitterness of the final concoction. That dry character and subtle (or more intense, depending on the cider) tartness make farmhouse-style ciders a natural in sweeter tiki drinks and classic punches; they also make themselves right at home when mixed “straight up” with top-shelf spirits. If you are in pursuit of a well-balanced, delicious libation (or simply a fine, stiff drink), cider is your game.

THE STONE FENCE earned its place in American cocktail history as the purported go-to beverage of Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys. The infamous revolutionaries led a successful assault against British soldiers at Fort Ticonderoga while the “boys” were supposedly soused after a few rounds of the potent libation. Whether true or not, the drink was itself a local legend. It was originally a mixture of two readily accessible ingredients, rye whiskey and hard apple cider, but the cider eventually took on alternate spirit partners. By the time the Stone Fence appeared in the pages of The Bartender’s Guide 1862, it had morphed into a cider-laced bourbon cocktail. Today mixologists might even reach for a bottle of rum—a 250-plus-year testament to cider’s versatility in cocktails.

HOW TO BUILD A PROPER STONE FENCE Pour 2 shots of rye whiskey into a pint glass with a few cubes of ice, and top off with a dry or semi-dry farmhouse cider.

Crates of apples on an apple farm


It takes time to go on a true cider making journey. — Kim Vavrick, Virtue Cider Communications Manager

Though cider is a deceptively simple beverage, cidermaking is an exacting process that takes an incredible amount of patience. Traditional cider is made from 100% apples, that's it. (Again, some craft cidermakers today are innovating by including additional ingredients, such as different types of fruit or botanicals.) But there is so much more to what actually goes into that crisp and dry glass of liquid gold.


Apple farmers don’t start their orchards from seeds. They plant saplings or younger trees, in the one- to three-year-old range, so the root structure can take to the soil for a few seasons before the tree is ready to grow great apples. (It’s not as easy as planting a seed of one apple to get the same variety later. In another method, in lieu of buying new seedlings, farmers will often graft young budding branches to existing rootstock to propagate a desired apple variety.) It’s not just a wait-and-see method either; there is a lot of tree care required during this period to make sure that parasites, vermin, and diseases don’t harm the young trees.


It can take five, and sometimes up to ten, years for apple trees to bear fruit, depending on the variety of apple, soil quality, weather conditions, and other factors. There’s never a magic formula for when the first apples will appear.


Apple blossoms pop up in early spring (typically March to April). The small fruit will grow and develop the right sugar content for cidermaking throughout the summer. Depending on the variety, the apple harvest can last from just after Labor Day through mid-November.


Yes, there are industrialized methods to quickly harvest large amounts of apples from trees. But the best way, especially for growers who sell to the fresh market (groceries and farmers’ markets), is still the old-fashioned way: real people handpicking each apple from the trees.


Farmers deliver the wooden crates of apples to the cider house, where they are washed, ground, and pressed. Apple presses vary in size, structure, and efficiency. The Virtue Cider team uses a horizontal accordion press (also known as a “squeeze box”) that relies on hydraulic power to press up to 2,000 gallons of juice in one day—the equivalent of 25,000 to 30,000 pounds of apples. It’s not as easy as it sounds; the painstaking process must be controlled by people rather than automated equipment.


Proper farmhouse cider isn’t “sped up”—which means, unlike at some other cider houses, Virtue doesn’t have additional heating or cooling installed in its facilities. Our cidermakers rely on the ambient temperature in the building for the yeast to do its work. (Have you ever spent a winter in Michigan?) In colder months, this process takes longer; in warmer months, fermentation occurs more quickly. It’s all part and parcel of a naturally made cider.


Fully fermented cider is ready to drink, but barrel-aging lends complexity to the finished beverage. French oak, American oak, and spent bourbon barrels are great vessels for aging cider (the finished cider is aged anywhere from one month to one year or more, depending on the desired profile). Even many barrels, like the bourbon barrels used to age The Mitten, take time to get to the cidermaker. “We like our bourbon barrels to be at least eight years old,” says Seth Boeve, Virtue’s head cidermaker. “That allows the wood to really draw in the flavors of the bourbon and also get the more mature character of the bourbon instead of just the ‘hot’ liquor character fresh off the still.”


The quickest process in the cidermaking journey, in fact, is packaging the finished product in a can, keg, or bottle. Ciders are made like wine and can age like them, too (up to five years in a well-sealed glass bottle). Be patient about enjoying your cider as well!

Ready for a cider cocktail? We're serving up a Cider Collins and Basil Spritz.