Betcha didn’t know this: Adam and Eve notwithstanding, folks for thousands of years didn’t even eat apples—or drink the fresh juice that came from crushing them. Whether growing wild or in the cultivated orchards of 9th Century England, early apples were simply too bitter.
They weren’t, however, useless. When that fresh bitter juice was allowed to sit, ferment, and bubble, it not only became sweet and feel-good boozy—aka “hard” cider—but also offered a source of hydration that was often safer than available water sources.
America’s early colonists counted on the stuff; and some, like famous food journalist Michael Pollan, believe hard cider, not food, was the purpose of (and enthusiasm for) Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman’s apple orchards across New England and the Midwest.
Happily, folks in northern Michigan don’t have to hope for a benevolent seed-man to swing by their parcel—or even wait for harvest season—to sip cider today. Leelanau County boasts a bounty of super cideries that keep a steady supply of outstanding hard ciders flowing through all four seasons. Here, are our picks for the most winter-worthy of the bunch:
You don’t need to wait for the wonder of a bluebird day to brighten the region’s wintry skies; you need only sled (or drive) down the rolling hills of Setterbo Road to Suttons Bay’s Tandem Ciders. Its tasting room might be tiny, but the clouds somehow seem to part when Sunny Day is on tap. Made with winter banana apples (yup, they’re a thing), with some bright (McIntosh) and tart (Rhode Island Greening and Jonathan) apples mixed in, Sunny Day is said to taste like a juice box, but we think it’s far less cloying and more drinkable than that. At 5.0% ABV, you can easily enjoy two over a game of darts in Tandem’s back room or a stroll in the orchard out back. www.tandemciders.com
Soul Squeeze Cellars
Warning: This cider is as fiery as its name suggests, but we beg you: Do not be deterred from trying it, even if you don’t enjoy spicy food. The sweetness of the apples, alongside the enriched blackberries, might not offset the smoky heat brought by the cider’s long soak in ghost peppers, but they most certainly complement it to a delightful degree. A heart-and-belly warmer that comes in a 4-pack of cans, Captain Hotpants is the perfect date to pack along for a snowy hike or picnic … or for sipping while overlooking the icy Narrows from Soul Squeeze Cellars’ Lake Leelanau tasting room. 6.5% ABV. www.soulsqueezecellars.com.
This elegant, bubbly semi-dry rosé sparkling cider bears no relation to Michael Martin Murphey’s hit ’70s song Wildfire. (You know the one—about the gal who froze to death, after chasing her runaway horse across the Nebraska tundra? “She ran calling Wildfiiiiire … ”) Yup, that one.
But Mawby’s Wild Cider, a lovely balance of hand-picked and hand-pressed Rhode Island Greening, Northern Spy, and Ida Red apples that are fermented once, then fermented again in the Cuve Close Method (a traditional method but fancy way of saying “trapping bubbles in a sealed tank”).
A touch of tart cherry is added afterward, making this semi-dry especially refreshing and just sweet enough that there’s a very real risk of downing an entire bottle and crooning alone by the bonfire, “She ran calling Wild Ciiiiiider.” Proceed with caution; this bub’s an irresistible blushing beaut. 7% ABV. www.mawby.wine.
Two K Farms
As much as we love the unique notes of Two K’s Harrison cider—some palettes detect custard, lemon, vanilla, and baked apples; ours detects pure deliciousness—the origin story of this single varietal cider is even better.
Once upon a time, Harrison apples were among the hottest hard-cider-making apples in our burgeoning nation. Hailing from the New Jersey orchard of one Samuel Harrison in the late 1600s, the rightfully named Harrison apples rose to such prominence in the region that their resulting cider became known (and sometimes labeled) as the Champagne of Newark.
And yet, sometime between the American Revolution and Vietnam, it disappeared entirely—until a fruit collector from Vermont, on the hunt for the once famous tree in 1976, happened upon a single Harrison tree sitting in an old Newark orchard, one about to be leveled to make way for a garden.
From that single tree stems all Harrison apple trees in existence today. A warming winter tale if ever we’d heard one—and all the better enjoyed inside one of the illuminated igloos dotting Two K’s estate, where the source of the stuff in your glass, Harrisons included, are grown. 6.7% ABV. www.twokfarms.com
Lynda Twardowski Wheatley is an award-winning writer specializing in stories that showcase Michigan travel and recreation, history and culture, and the passionate folks who make this place so extraordinary. LTWriter.com