Caramel apple sangria, perfect for fall. Photo courtesy of Libby & Son U-Picks

With apple-picking season now in full swing, running through late October, I thought it would be fun to take a look at some apple-forward cocktails. Who better to turn to than Maine apple growers for some insider (or in-cider) tips?

Margie Hansel, owner of Hansel’s Orchard in North Yarmouth (hanselsorchard.com) heats up her apple cider, then adds some Mount Gay rum (produced in Barbados by the world’s oldest commercial rum distillery) and a dash of cinnamon. Sounds like an excellent breakfast beverage to me! Along similar lines, the folks at Thompson’s Orchard in New Gloucester (maineappleorchard.com) enjoy mixing their hot cider with some Black Velvet, a Canadian whisky.

Aaron Libby, owner of Libby & Son U-Picks in Limerick (libbysonupicks.com), recommends his caramel apple sangria, a drink I haven’t stopped thinking about since he described it to me. He uses white wine instead of red, chunks of apples (of course) for the fruit, apple cider, and – wait for it – caramel vodka. Yes, please.

Equally tempting is the Apple Vodka Bubble Punch recommended by chef Jennifer “C.J.” Best, who works alongside manager Nathan Sprague at Rocky Ridge Orchard in Bowdoin (rockyridgeorchard.com). First and foremost, she says, make apple cider ice cubes so that you don’t dilute the final product. I definitely support this concept, so I was eager to hear what happened next. Muddle some fresh apples, then add dried apple rings to a mix of apple cider, vanilla vodka and orange vanilla Polar seltzer (basically the calorie-free equivalent of a carbonated creamsicle). Note to self: Add C.J. to holiday card list so that, when the pandemic is over, she’ll invite me to any parties she’s throwing.

A hard-cider tasting flight at Ricker Hill. The blue one is Mainiac Mac Blueberry, the red is a Mainiac CranGold, the next is their Mainiac Gold, and the one on the end is their Mainiac Mac. The flight of four tasters cost $6. Photo by Angie Bryan

Andy Ricker of Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner (rickerhill.com) had several favorite recipes, no surprise given the wide range of apple beverages produced by Ricker Hill. One is the Cape Elizabeth, the Maine version of a Cape Codder: 3 ounces Ricker Hill Cran-breeze lightly carbonated apple cranberry cider and 2 ounces vodka, garnished with an apple wedge or whole cranberries or both. Another is the Rotten Apple, a twist on a Black and Tan using hard cider (with the Guinness) instead of a pale ale. He also likes a drink from the bar at the Turner Highlands Golf Course and Country Club, made by combining a pint of Ricker Hill’s Mainiac blueberry hard cider with a shot of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky.

If you’d rather have someone make an apple-forward cocktail for you, head over to Inkwell at the Press Hotel, where they’re debuting a $12 cocktail called the Apple Branch. Since apple is most frequently combined with bourbon, whisky, rum or vodka, the Inkwell team decided to think outside the box and do a twist on a Pisco Sour instead.

Naturally, they also incorporated some honey from their rooftop hives. The Apple Branch contains 1.5 ounces Pisco (a widely-available South American brandy), 0.5 ounce Applejack (an apple brandy best known for its use in the Jack Rose cocktail), 0.5 ounce Bartlett apple brandy (I’m sensing a theme here), 0.5 ounce lemon juice, 0.5 ounce fennel honey, 3 dashes of walnut bitters and an egg white. After being strained twice, it’s served in a coupe and garnished with a dried apple chip and grated cinnamon.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Anoche, the cider house on Washington Avenue in Portland that serves more than 40 different local and international ciders through the big window on the side of its building. Some of the ciders are pear, not apple … but that’s a whole other column.

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