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Harder Cider 

Calvados calling for Sonoma County apple brandy makers

click to enlarge Hard Times  Prohibition Spirits makes two apple brandies from West County apples, bottled under their Chauvet label.
  • Hard Times Prohibition Spirits makes two apple brandies from West County apples, bottled under their Chauvet label.

Hard apple cider is a refreshing, low-alcohol alternative to wine and a gluten-free substitute for craft beer. It also helps save heritage apple trees in Sonoma County. But, you knew it'd lead to harder stuff, didn't you?

When Tilted Shed Ciderworks cofounders Ellen Cavalli and Scott Heath moved their operation into a little Windsor warehouse space in 2014, they found helpful neighbors in Sonoma Brothers Distilling. Inspired by Calvados, the French apple brandy that's also a strictly controlled appellation (like Champagne), the shedsters brought their cider next door to be distilled and barreled down. When it's aged to their liking, they'll be able to sell bottles of it from their tasting room (only)—like most very small-batch brandies.

Meanwhile, Chris and Brandon Matthies have already released their Sonoma Brothers apple brandy ($50), which is pressed at Tilted Shed, fermented and distilled by the brothers and aged in lightly toasted American oak barrels for two years. Made from Sonoma County Gravenstein apples, it's a little reminiscent of flakey apple pie crust. The faintly appley, softly floral spirit has extracted sweet vanilla—from the oak, plus some spice, and the body is like a heathery Highland whisky. Fine and delicate, this is only available at the tasting room.

Up in Healdsburg, Jason Jorgensen is happy to distill just about anything you throw at him, and a year or so ago fate threw him a bunch of apple brandy he'd already distilled for the suddenly shuttered Sonoma Cider venture. Aged in 30-gallon, charred American whiskey-style barrels, Alley 6 apple brandy ($45) has even more buttery, apple pie spice notes, an amber-gold hue, and is a touch friskier and hotter on the finish than the Brothers' brandy.

Down in Sonoma Valley, wineries reach out to the Sonoma Coast to source Chardonnay grapes, and the same goes for apples. Prohibition Spirits makes two apple brandies from West County apples, bottled under their Chauvet label.

"I thought it was interesting that everyone was into the Gravenstein apple," says cofounder Fred Groth. "But nobody was doing anything with it, spirit-wise."

At Prohibition Spirits, Fred and Amy Groth distilled two brandies with local apples: a rough-chopped, fermented and distilled brandy from Sonoma County Arkansas Black apples ($45) that's light and sweet-bodied, and what they call a more "Calvados-style" Gravenstein apple brandy ($52) that's aged in Pinot Noir barrels, and is earthier and drier—more like a dry style of rye.

Make a cocktail if you wish, but these spirits, the distilled essence of Sonoma County apple heritage, are fascinating sipping on their own. With a cider back, naturally.

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