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Holiday Cheer: Bourbon Apple Cider

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The smells, sights, and colors of fall are brilliant, vibrant, and comforting. However, once the leaves change and the days grow shorter, to many it can feel dreary, grey, and sad. We all know 2020 has been a tough one. One of my favorite winter combinations to serve during the holiday season is Bourbon Apple Cider. It’s delicious warm or chilled over ice.

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History of Apple Cider

Bourbon and apple cider are both early American beverages. Bourbon’s roots go back to the late 1700s when Scotch-Irish settlers started making whiskey in Kentucky. In 17th century Colonial America, hard cider and whiskey were consumed more often than water. In the cities, water was often contaminated and alcohol-based drinks were less likely to spread disease and had a longer shelf life than non-alcoholic beverages.

You’ve likely heard of Johnny Appleseed? He’s not just a children’s fairy tale, but a real person whose name was John Chapman. In the late 1700s he traveled the frontier planting apple orchards, then would return several years later to sell the orchard and the surrounding land. The small, tart apples his orchards produced were used primarily to make hard cider and applejack.

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Heirloom Apples

There are many different cultivars of apples and I often use apples as an example to explain plant diversity. When we walk into the grocery store we see five or so kinds of different apples — whereas we don’t normally see five different types of lemons or five different types of yellow squash. Yet, many produce departments often contain Red and Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Honey Crisp, and McIntosh apples.

Now, it looks like diversity, but in reality, it’s not. In the mid-1800s, there were thousands of unique varieties of apples in the United States. Prohibition had a lot to do with the eradication of some of those early nurseries as they were planted with apples used to make alcohol. The apple industry settled on a handful of varieties, such as the ones found in the grocery store today, to promote worldwide, and the rest was forgotten and became commercially extinct. However, apple trees can last several hundred years. The apple glossary above features a smattering of heirloom apples. Each of them was wildly different in flavor and texture. From top to bottom, here’s a bit about each.

Orleans Reinette is a good cooking apple and has both citrus and nutty flavors.

Lamb Abbey Pearmain is a dessert apple, small and intensely flavored with a hint of pineapple which becomes more pronounced as the harvest moves later into the fall.

Ribston Pippin was a very popular dessert apple during Victorian times due to its bold flavor, juiciness, aroma, and firm texture.

Sheep’s Nose is a New England variety from the early 1800s and is traditionally used as a cooking apple due to it’s rich flavor and aromatic quality. It’s known as a “Sheep’s Nose” due to it’s unusual shape which tapers toward the base.

Reine de Reinette is a French apple from the 1700s with a high sugar content that is balanced with acidity. It’s a very juicy apple, great for eating out of hand, and is considered the best apple in Normandy France for producing apple cider.

Ananas Reinette was grown in France in the 1500s. It has a zesty pineapple citrus flavor and a fine grain textured flesh. Translated into English, this means “Royal Pineapple.”

Maiden’s Blush  originated in the 1700s and was traditionally used for dried apples.

Raise a Toast

This holiday season I am sharing with you a recipe for Bourbon Apple Cider marrying wonderful winter flavors in one glass. I find most mulled apple ciders too sweet and prefer to bring out cider’s richer qualities with lemon, cinnamon, and thyme. The lemon gives it zest and tempers the sweetness, fresh apple slices layer the flavors, and cinnamon and thyme round it out with savory aroma.

I also suggest a bourbon with a heavy blend of rye on the mash to give cider a little heat. This Bourbon Apple Cider can be served over ice or warmed and ladled into a mug. Make sure to raise a glass (or a mug) this holiday season.

Bon Appétit, Y’all

Virginia Willis


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Bourbon Apple Cider

Serves 4
Prep Time3 minutes
Cook Time5 minutes
Total Time8 minutes
Course: beverage, Drinks
Cuisine: American, Southern
Keyword: bourbon, cider, hot drink, mulled


  • 4 cups apple cider
  • 4 ounces bourbon
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • Pinch of cinnamon
  • thyme for garnish


  • For a chilled cocktail combine chilled cider, bourbon, lemon juice, and cinnamon. Stir to combine. Pour over ice and garnish with thyme.
  • For a warmed beverage combine the cider, bourbon, lemon juice, and cinnamon, and thyme in a small saucepan. Bring to a gentle simmer over medium heat. Pour into mugs and serve.

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Virginia Willis

Georgia-born French-trained Chef Virginia Willis’ biography includes making chocolate chip cookies with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, foraging for berries in the Alaskan wilderness, harvesting capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, and hunting for truffles in France. She is talent and chef-instructor for the digital streaming platform Food Network Kitchen. Her segments feature authentic and innovative Southern cooking. She was the celebrity chef at the Mansion at Churchill Downs for the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby. Virginia has spoken at SXSW, cooked for the James Beard Foundation, and beguiled celebrities such as Bill Clinton, Morgan Freeman, and Jane Fonda with her cooking — but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. Recently, her work has been inspired by her weight loss success story, Virginia has lost 65# and kept it off for over 2 1/2 years! “If a French-trained, Southern chef can do it, you can, too.” She is the author of Fresh Start; Secrets of the Southern Table; Lighten Up, Y’all; Bon Appétit, Y’all; Basic to Brilliant, Y’all; Okra; and Grits. Lighten Up, Y’all won a James Beard Foundation Award of Excellence in the Focus on Health Category. Lighten Up, Y’all as well as her first cookbook, Bon Appétit, Y’all, were finalists in the Best American Cookbook for the International Association of Cookbook Awards and were also named by the Georgia Center of the Book as “Books Georgians Should Read.” She is the former TV kitchen director for Martha Stewart Living, Bobby Flay, and Nathalie Dupree; has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants; and traveled the world producing food stories – from making cheese in California to escargot farming in France. She has appeared on Food Network’s Chopped, CBS This Morning, Fox Family and Friends, Martha Stewart Living, and as a judge on Throwdown with Bobby Flay. She’s been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, People Magazine, Eater, and Food52 and has contributed to Eating Well, GRLSQUASH, Culture, Garden & Gun, and Bon Appétit, and more. The Chicago Tribune praised her as one of “Seven Food Writers You Need to Know.” Her legion of fans loves her down-to-earth attitude, approachable spirit, and traveling exploits. Her culinary consulting company, Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc specializes in content creation, recipe development, culinary editorial and production services, cookbook writing, media training, spokesperson and brand representation, and public speaking. Virginia is on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Blue Ribbon Task Force, the Atlanta Community Food Bank Advisory Board, as well as the Community Farmers Market Advisory Board. She is a food and hunger advocate for No Kid Hungry and a premier member of the No Kid Hungry Atlanta Society. She a member of The James Beard Foundation, Chef’s Collaborative, Georgia Organics, and Southern Foodways Alliance.

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