Autumn is here and, despite the aggressive push for pumpkin spice, it’s unequivocally apple — and cider — season.
At its most basic definition, cider is fermented apple juice. But like wine, it contains multitudes, skewing tart, sour, dry, bitter, sweet, wild, herbal, acidic, sparkling with big bubbles, sparkling with fine, fizzy bubbles or not sparkling at all. Some aren’t even made from apples, but pears or other pomaceous fruit. If you’re a cider aficionado, there is always a new expression to try; if you’re newer to the world of ciders, it’s safe to assume that, if you taste enough, you’ll find one suited to your palate.
Cider has a long history. Records of cidermaking date to the Roman Empire, and many historians believe the Romans discovered it while invading what is now modern-day England. After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, the drink spread across Europe, with regions developing different production methods and traditions influenced by terroir, apple varieties and local customs.
To that end, traditional English ciders often lean dry and tannic; French cidre tends to be sweeter, lower in alcohol and light in sparkle; and Spanish sidra is frequently funky, tangy and unfiltered. While close in proximity, the northern Basque and Asturias regions — Spain’s two main cidermaking areas — produce different styles: Basque cider is typically more acidic and savory; Asturian cider fruitier. A similar contrast plays out in two of France’s neighboring cider regions, Brittany and Normandy. Breton cider is often drier and a bit stronger than off-dry, complex Norman bottles.
In North America, cider was extremely popular in the 17th century, but the once-bracing drink fell out of favor amid a rising preference for beer and a move to urban development in the mid- to late-19th century.
By the end of Prohibition in 1933, many of the orchards producing small tannin-rich, often-astringent cider apples were destroyed and replaced with sweeter, more palatable table apples, and the cider industry didn’t recover in the way the beer and spirits industries eventually did. But since the late 1990s, American cider has moved from post-Prohibition’s candy-sweet iterations, to serious bottles that employ heritage and contemporary techniques and craft ciders that range from bone dry to juicy and delightfully funky.
Enjoyable on its own as an aperitif or served alongside a meal, cider has also found its way into cocktails. Andra “AJ” Johnson, the beverage director and managing partner at Serenata in Washington, D.C., and a founder of DMV Black Restaurant Week, likens its role in mixed drinks to that of sparkling wine.
With the addition of sparkling wine, she said, “you’re giving your cocktail another dimension, adding acidity, a bit of tannin quality, balancing the richness or sweetness of the cocktail’s base, and cleansing your palate at the same time.”
Ciders, she added, “are going to act the exact same way.”
Start simple, and combine cider and vermouth in equal parts over ice. For another easy option that’s low-A.B.V. (alcohol by volume), swap wine for cider in a Kir cocktail, and call it a Kir Breton. Or, if you’re looking for something with more spirit, top a base of gin, sherry and orange liqueur with an effervescent glug of dry cider.
“It’s all about creating balance,” she said. “It is not something to be overthought.”
The best way to figure out which cider is most balancing is to taste a bunch and experiment. Ms. Johnson suggests using a richer cider to counter a more fruit-forward base. Pair a sweeter base with a drier-leaning cider, or vice versa.
Since many ciders are sold in larger-format bottles, you can start the evening with a cider-based cocktail or two, then drink the rest of the bottle alongside a meal. If you have any left over at the end of the night, Ms. Johnson suggests making a cider syrup by combining the remaining cider with sugar in a 1:1 ratio and gently “throwing” or pouring the mixture back and forth between two shakers until the sugar is fully dissolved.
Store the cider syrup in the refrigerator for up to three weeks, and substitute it for standard simple syrup. Or, if you’re done drinking cider, bring any left into the kitchen and cook with it.
Once you find a cider you like, you can keep pouring it year-round: If history is any indication, the apple, autumn’s quintessential fruit, has staying power.