"Contemporary craft bartenders, like their ancestral drink slingers, have a special relationship with apricot brandy."
Several years ago, when I first started exploring drink recipes from the early- and mid-20th century, one question kept recurring: exactly what was up back then with all the apricot brandy?
It's not an unreasonable question. In books ranging from The Savoy Cocktail Book from 1930, to Patrick Gavin Duffy's Official Mixer's Manual from 1934, to Trader Vic's Bartender's Guide from 1947 and the Esquire Drink Book from 1956, drink recipes calling for a dose of apricot brandy seemed curiously common, and far outnumbered drinks made with other fruit brandies or liqueurs such as peach or even cherry.
It seems I'm not alone.
In last week's Washington Post, Jason Wilson writes that contemporary craft bartenders, like their ancestral drink slingers, have a special relationship with apricot brandy—though he notes that the orange liquid does have a few points against it in the minds of many drinkers, starting with himself.
"For me, the brandy brought bad associations; it seemed to be the sort of thing people down on their luck bought in pints and drank out of little paper bags. As a young person, I remember classmates buying pints of Jacquin's Apricot Flavored Brandy for illegal parties in the woods. Later, I had a friend who ordered apricot sours, and I was always vaguely embarrassed when she did that, particularly in dive bars."
Part of apricot brandy's problem starts with its name. While there are a few true apricot brandies out there—and by "true," I mean brandies that are actually distilled from apricots, and not a neutral spirit sweetened and flavored with the fruit (or some facsimile thereof)—these dry, ethereal spirits fall into the same realm of eaux de vie as do kirschwasser and poire William, and are more likely to be seen on the after-dinner drink cart than in a bartender's well.
In most cocktail recipes, "apricot brandy" refers to an apricot-flavored liqueur, and as Wilson notes, the brands most commonly found in liquor stores have flavors that are oppressively saccharine and artificial. There are a few brands, however, that are worth seeking out: Marie Brizard Apry, from France, is a well-made liqueur that works well in most cocktails, and Rothman & Winter Orchard Apricot, from Austria, has a gorgeous natural aroma and flavor of fresh apricots (not surprising, considering that it's made from a base of apricot eau de vie), and is less sugary than most other liqueurs so it can be deployed in a cocktail without oversweetening the drink.
Another favorite of mine is Giffard Abricot du Roussilon, a French liqueur that's rich and jammy, but that is extremely difficult to find (its main North American distribution seems to be in British Columbia, and I bring back the occasional bottle from Vancouver to satisfy my apricot needs). Any of these three do an excellent job in cocktails, though the Rothman & Winter is probably the most natural (and natural-tasting) of the bunch.
As Wilson writes, some craft bartenders have a special affinity for apricot brandy in classic cocktails. Among the favorites are the Baltimore Bang (basically an apricot-driven whiskey sour), and the Hotel Nacional Special, a relative of the Daiquiri that has a luscious stone-fruit flavor; contemporary cocktails that use apricot liqueur to good effect include the Slope, from New York bartender and bar owner Julie Reiner, and the Stone Fruit Sour, from Seattle bartender Zane Harris.
As unlikely as it might seem at first, apricot brandy carries great weight behind the craft cocktail bar, and there are some excellent apricot drinks that deserve to be revisited, such as one of my favorites, the Claridge. Are there any cocktails made with apricot brandy that you find particularly appealing? Let us know.
About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.