THE REVIVAL OF AMERICAN HARD CIDER — sales have roughly doubled in each of the past three years — has spawned a bumper crop of artisanal cideries in Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin and other apple-growing states. But not in New Jersey.
That’s not right, considering New Jerseyans were among the first in the New World to ferment apple juice into hard cider and distill hard cider into applejack. America’s oldest distillery, Laird’s, has been making applejack in Colts Neck since the Revolutionary War, to cite just one example.
“New Jersey was known for its cider and applejack, to the point that New Yorkers called New Jerseyans ‘apple-knockers,’ ” says drinks historian David Wondrich, editor of the soon-to-be-published “Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails” (Oxford University Press, 2016). “You said apples to a New Yorker and he thought, ‘Jersey.’
Three young men, two of whom met while playing rugby at Rutgers University, are determined to restore our reputation as “apple-knockers.” Working from a barn in a remote corner of Sussex County, Frank Voris, Marty Willard and Mike DiLallo recently began bottling delicious examples of barrel-aged hard cider under the Twisted Limb label. While their first commercial batch amounted to only about 1,000 bottles, they plan to ramp up annual production to at least 50,000 bottles next year.
“We claim we’re the first hard-cider company in New Jersey since Prohibition,” says Voris, 28, one rainy Saturday afternoon after transferring a recently fermented batch to an old bourbon barrel for aging.
“It’s a farmhouse cider,” adds Willard, 31. “It’s not the same every batch or every bottle. We make cider with what we can get.”For now, they’re making Twisted Limb with apples purchased from local growers, both in New Jersey and across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. But last year Voris, Willard and DiLallo planted 3 acres of apple trees next to the barn, on Voris’ family property. The trees should be bearing enough fruit for cider production within a year or two.
The orchard contains a number of varieties with unusual names, such as ‘Ashmead’s Kernel,’ ‘Newtown Pippin,’ ‘Roxbury Russet’ and ‘Wickson Crab.’ If they’re unfamiliar, that’s because the best hard cider is made from cider apples, also called “spitters,” which are too bitter for eating.
“Cider apples are really small and ugly and tart,” Willard says. “And they’re great for making hard cider.”
One variety they planted, known as the Harrison apple, is so named because it originally was grown in orchards around Newark, including what is today the town of Harrison. In the 1700s and 1800s, the variety enjoyed a reputation as one of the best cider apples, according to an early-19th century book on fruit trees.
“This is the most celebrated of the cider apples of Newark in New Jersey,” William Coxe Jr., a state legislator and congressman, wrote in his “A View of the Cultivation of Fruit Trees and the Management of Orchards and Cider,” published in 1817. “It is cultivated to high perfection and to a great extent in that neighborhood, particularly on the Orange mountain. … It obtained its name from a family in Essex County.”
The seeds of Twisted Limb were planted at Rutgers, where Voris, an engineering major, enjoyed making beer in his spare time.
“I wanted to start a brewery,” Voris recalls. “I have always been interested in the production of alcohol — a completely natural biological occurrence that can produce some of the most sought-after products, as well as some of the foulest.”
He and Willard would later talk about going into the beer-making business together, but were daunted by the high cost of brewing, fermentation and bottling equipment. “First, it was my five-year plan,” Voris says. “Then it was my 10-year plan.”
At one point, Willard suggested hard cider, which is substantially cheaper and easier to make than beer. For one thing, there’s no brewing involved; you just press the apples and let the juice ferment. The fact that New Jersey had a long history of cider production made the prospect even more intriguing.
Voris and Willard — first on their own, then together with DiLallo — began making small batches of hard cider for friends and family. Positive feedback encouraged them to produce successively larger quantities, while experimenting with various techniques and finishes.
Through trial and error, they came to appreciate two types of yeast — an English-cider strain and the German strain — and discovered that aging the fermented cider in used bourbon barrels enhanced the flavor. They also started adding a touch of honey from a local beekeeper to induce a secondary fermentation inside the bottle, which produces a light fizz.
By 2014, they were ready to go commercial. But first, they needed a license. That’s when things got difficult.
“I called the state and said we want to make hard cider, and they said, ‘Oh, is that wine?’ ” Voris recalls. “And they transferred me to the wine division. And they said, ‘You want to start a winery?’ And I said, ‘No, hard cider.’ So they transferred me to the brewery division. And they said, ‘You want to start a microbrewery?’ And I said, ‘No, we want to make hard cider.’ So they transferred me to the distillery division. And they said, ‘So you want to start a distillery?’ And I said, ‘No, we want to make hard cider.’ So they transferred me back to the wine division, where I started. I’m not kidding.”
In the end, the state issued Twisted Limb a farm winery license, giving them the green light to start selling its cider earlier this year.
Aware of the bureaucratic hurdles Voris had to clear, state lawmakers have crafted a bill that would create a license specifically for hard-cider production. A farm winery license is a poor fit, since it requires producers to grow at least some of the fruit they use on-site. To get their license, for example, Voris and his partners were required to plant a minimum of 3 acres of apple trees. But that may not be feasible for other cider makers, who might prefer purchasing fruit or juice from outside growers.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) and Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden/Burlington), would eliminate the planting requirement. “We think it’s going to be a pretty easy pass,” says an aide to Lampitt.
When it comes to serving hard cider, Voris and his partners prefer it chilled to refrigerator temperature or poured over ice. They also recommend a mixed drink whose very name confirms New Jersey’s status as the premier source of hard cider pre-Prohibition: the Jersey Cocktail. You can find it in a popular 19th-century bartender’s guide published by Jerry Thomas, the most famous mixologist of his day.
Here’s Voris’ version: Fill a rocks glass with ice; add a teaspoon of simple syrup and a dash of bitters; fill with hard cider and garnish with a lemon twist. It’s super refreshing — a great drink to serve at a barbecue or early-autumn picnic.