Barking Irons Applejack: A Spirit Inspired by Old New York

“It is a picturesque sight to visit the distilleries in the pines and watch the process of manufacture,” reads a lilting ode to applejack in an 1892 article in The New York Times. “It is the favorite beverage of the out-of-door toilers, charcoal burners, and ‘pinehawkers,’ and they will walk many a mile after their labors are ended to secure it.”

Since 2016, Elliott Phear and Casey McGrath have aimed to lure post-work drinkers with their own applejack, called Barking Irons. As the founders of the strategic and creative marketing agency Night After Night, Phear and McGrath have been longtime promoters of liquor brands, including Jameson Irish Whiskey, Tequila Avión, Martell Cognac, and many others. The pair both grew up adjacent to New York City and set their sights on creating a locally produced throwback drink that fully embodies the spirit of their beloved city: smooth and refined, but tough as nails, too.

Bottles of Barking Irons proudly start with a blend of peak-of-season New York apple varieties, sourced from around the state, including tangy-sweet Jonagolds, juicy Macouns, and crisp Galas. These are pressed and transformed into hard apple cider, which is subsequently distilled down to a potent apple eau de vie at Finger Lakes Distilling and then bottled at the Van Brunt Stillhouse in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood. And, in the case of Barking Irons’ original, 100-proof offering, the powerful stuff is then aged for several months in charred oak barrels. The resulting dark spirit is a spiritual cousin of whiskey, infused with deep notes of caramel, vanilla, and pepper.

Barking Irons co-founders Casey McGrath (left) and Elliott Phear (right). Photo Credit: Haley Cimillo/Night After Night

Amber in hue and rich in apple flavor, applejack was once the boozy go-to for 18th- and 19th-century denizens of the northeastern United States. Its predecessor, hard apple cider, had been popular since the early colonial era. Technically safer to drink than water, hard cider was a heck of a lot more fun, too. The cider’s popularity was likely tied to New York State’s abundance of apple trees, which were first planted by Dutch and English settlers in the early 1600s. Today, New York State produces the second most apples of any other state, with more than 10 million apple trees growing between the northern reaches of Niagara Falls and Staten Island in the far south.

In the late 17th century, across the border in New Jersey, Scottish immigrants steeped in the whiskey tradition found themselves without access to quality rye, barley, or corn and set to working with abundant local apples. Applejack — the first truly American spirit — became wildly popular in New York City, particularly in the rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Five Points. But applejack also earned its fair share of anti-alcohol foes: “The name has a homely, innocent appearance, but in reality applejack is a particularly powerful and evil spirit,” howled an incendiary pro-temperance column in the New York Times back in 1884. With Prohibition looming ahead, applejack seemed fated to meet a dismal end. More than a century later, though, it’s finally back where it belongs — behind the bar.

Bottles of Barking Irons can now be found on back bars across New York State from deep in Brooklyn to far north in Albany. Though robust in flavor — sharper and less sweet than hard cider, but fruitier than whiskey —the 100-proof original easily slips into any cocktail that calls for dark, moody liquors, like bourbon, rye, Scotch, or even aged rum. Consider a new spin on the Old Fashioned (what Barking Irons has coined the “Bold Fashioned,” a drink enlivened with applejack instead of whiskey, plus a hit of maple syrup) or a twist on the Manhattan (like the spirit-forward “Lower Manhattan,” which swaps out rye for applejack).

Just in time for summer, Barking Irons will release its new 80-proof applejack. Clear and un-aged, this lighter rendition is a great way to amp up spritzy summer Highballs and sessionable punches. Try the Big Apple Sonic; half tonic and half fizzy club soda, it’s topped with a hearty glug of applejack and a twist of lemon.

The delicious Big Apple Sonic cocktail. Photo Credit: Haley Cimillo/Night After Night

Barking Iron’s’ 80-proof offering is the key ingredient in the brand’s “Fire Escape This Summer” campaign, which encourages apartment-bound New Yorkers to safely kick back this Memorial Day weekend in the comfort of their own homes. Fire escapes have long had an outsized social importance in the lives of New Yorkers, from back in the 1800s — when tenement dwellers slept on their fire escapes on hot summer nights to escape their stuffy apartments — to recent weeks, as social-distanced New Yorkers soak up sun and sanity before toasting frontline essential workers each night. Today, fire escapes — and rooftops, stoops, balconies, and patios — are getaways synonymous with the New York experience.

Those relaxing with Barking Iron’s 80-proof applejack this summer will also be helping the fight against Covid-19. Fifty percent of all profits from the new drink between now and July 4 will go to the EMS FDNY Help Fund, a nod to the heroes on the frontlines of the EMS represented by the traditional New York City firefighter’s shield emblem on Barking Irons’ label.

“As so many New Yorkers risk their lives every day to keep us safe, we wanted to find a way to give back,” said Elliott Phear, co-founder of the brand, “and the EMS FDNY Help Fund is an organization that’s making a direct difference by looking after the families of New York’s bravest.”

We all know that this summer won’t be like any other. As bars remain shut as part of stay-at-home orders, now in effect across most of the country, everyone must do their part — even if that’s as simple as drinking at home. Until we can all cheers together again in person, Barking Irons is out on its fire escape, raising a glass of applejack to drinkers everywhere.

This article is sponsored by Barking Irons.