Incorporating Cider into Your Cocktails

One use for cider, Mattie Beason says: A substitute for club soda.
One way to get cider into your cocktails, the Black Twig's Mattie Beason says: Substitute it for club soda. (Photo: Black Twig)

Despite the fact that hard cider’s been trending as a category in alcoholic beverages, misunderstandings about it — and how to use it in cocktails — abound.

“The general public has this expectation that cider is a one-trick pony — it’s made out of apples and sweet almost like a wine cooler — and it’s far from that,” says Mattie Beason, owner of Black Twig Cider House, in Durham, NC, which boasts the largest collection of cider in the Southeast and the only indoor txotx in the country. (A txotx is a Basque country cider barrel, which aerates still cider as it is shot out from the barrel into the glass, pronounced CHO-ch). “It is almost [like] you are really into cider and paying attention to the market, or you’re completely out of it. You would be surprised to find that a lot of beverage producers and bartenders think that their only cider options are two big brands.”

Ambrosia Borowski, assistant general manager of The Northman cider bar and restaurant in Chicago, says that cider is frequently lumped in with beer. “People call it cider beer all the time, and that’s one of the most frustrating parts of my job,” Borowski says. “Cider beer isn’t a thing. Beer is brewed from grains, and cider is made from fruit. You have to think about it differently.”

The confusion often comes because some ciders are sold in 750 ml bottles like wine, and some are sold in cans like beer. “We’ve got to figure out how to make our own definition. But it’s hard without having some sort of reference point that people can understand,” Beason says.

The Transcendent Crab

When using cider in cocktails, the first thing to understand, Borowski says — that's her "Transcendent Crab," at right — is what types of cider you're using, dry or sweet, for starters. “One of the tricky things you have to watch out for is some ciders have high tannins, and some have a surprising amount of acid,” she says. “If you’re using an American cider, and you want to add it to a liquor like rye, and if you add a cider that is either a lot of tannins or high acid, that is going to lash out in the cocktail because rye is already astringent and bitter so the drink will become extreme and unpleasant. Instead, you’d be better off going with a sweeter or low acid cider like an English pub cider or a sweeter American cider.”

One of the best cider cocktails to start out with is one called the Stone Fence, which is about 2 oz. of spirit mixed with 12 to 14 oz. of cider. This cocktail was often made in the 1700s and early 1800s. “This is one of my favorite ways to get people interested in cider cocktails,” Borowski says. “If people say I really like gin, why not take a hopped cider and mix it with barrel aged gin and some orange bitters. It has the qualities you remember and like about the spirit, but in a cider format.”

“The Stone Fence was an old, Revolutionary War cocktail, and solders took whatever they could find,” Beason adds. “They would take whatever local distilled product was available and then add it to cider. They never knew when they’d be fighting or not fighting, and they needed a clean drink.”

Beason says he’s made a delicious Stone Fence using Durham Distillery gin with Wolffer Rosé Cider from New York and some Bitterless Marriage (hibiscus, lavender and oak) bitters from Crude Bitters. “It’s sort of like a gin and tonic, but using cider instead of tonic,” Beason says.

Beason says cider can be easily substituted for club soda “for flavor and more aromatics,” or it can be used to lower the alcohol content and substituted for hard, white spirits. “So, for example, if you’re making a Negroni, you use cider instead of gin,” Beason says. “Those are my two easy simplifications, and while sometimes this combination doesn’t work perfectly, I’ve done it a number of different times and a number of different ways, and it’s worked great.”

One of the challenges in trying to learn more about cider is that some distributors don’t understand the product themselves, Borowski says. “I’ve had distributors walk into my bar, and they didn’t even know what their product was. They’d tell me that it was a dry cider, and I’d be like “No, this is not dry, it’s a sweet cider.’”

Instead, Borowski suggests reaching out to a local, cider producer. While not every state has one, most do, and is a great resource to not only find such craft producers, but also to learn about cider. “You can work out a deal with your local ciderie,” Borowski says. “Call them up and tell them that you’re putting their cider in a cocktail. You put it out on social media, then they can put it out, and that will bring in more people to your bar.”

Once you understand some of the nuances about different ciders, you can play up those characteristics in cocktails, Beason says. “We have a drink called the Sean Penn,” he says. “It’s basically a margarita with a spicy cider by Blake’s Hard Cider in Michigan called El Chavo. The cider gives the cocktail more spice and a fruitiness. The cider is interesting by itself, but with the cocktail, it becomes even more interesting.”

The Sean Penn by Mattie Beason

1.5 oz. Don Julio Blanco (or some Blanco tequila)

.75 oz. Cointreau

.75 oz. lime juice

1.25 oz. floater of Blake's El Chavo

Mix all but the cider and shake. Top with the El Chavo. Pretty simple take on a traditional margarita with the perfect spice of mango habanero cider.

The Transcendent Crab by Ambrosia Borowski [photo above]

1 oz. Averna

.75 oz. Cynar 70

7 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters

Anthem Hops cider

Stir together Averna, Cynar and bitters, then strain into an 8 oz. glass filled with fresh ice.

Top with Anthem Hops (or any other hopped cider) and stir to incorporate.

Garnish with a smashed mint leaf.

Jeanette Hurt is the author of Drink Like a Woman and is an award-winning writer focused on spirits, food and travel.

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