McIntosh

McIntosh is such a familiar apple in the U.S. that we tend to forget that its true origins are farther north in Canada. It got its name from John McIntosh (1777-1845), the man that found it growing on land he was clearing outside of Matilda Township in the county of Dundas, Ontario near the St. Lawrence River. He’d arrived there some time in the late 18th or early 19th century from New York’s Mohawk Valley, part of the second wave of European settlers moving into an area long inhabited by the Algonquin, Iroquois, and Wyandot peoples. The first wave had arrived in the 1780s. They were mostly German protestants resettled in England’s American colonies after being ousted from their home in the Palatine by the religious conflicts that were devastating much of Europe. Though historical accounts suggest that they were treated as little more than a cheap source of labor to support the business interests of the controlling English aristocracy, the Palatine ex-pats remained loyal subjects of the crown. Thus were they once again uprooted, heading north into territory still under British rule after the bloody war that turned 13 disparate colonies into the beginnings of the United States.

Known as the McIntosh Red, it seems to have remained a local variety until the 1870s, first noted in a handful of articles in northern Vermont newspapers. “A New Apple” trumpeted the headline over an article written by Guy A. Clough of Braintree, VT to the Vermont Farmer in April 1874. He said that he had accidentally discovered the applewhile traveling in Canada, coming across it in a market and finding it so wonderful that he tracked down its source, John McIntosh’s son Allen. “Your informant became so much interested in . . . this tree, that he traveled over a large section of country . . . in search of rebutting testimony [to its superior qualities], but found none, each affidavit being of the most positive character . . .”, he wrote. 

The qualities possessed by McIntosh Red, according to Clough in this and subsequent correspondence, would recommend it to any farmer. The trees bore a decent crop every year, for example, instead of the habit of biannual bearing that many otherwise good apples exhibit, even today. The fruits were large, had an attractive red color, and were reported to keep well into the spring following harvest. But it was the tree’s hardiness and reported resistance to frost damage that seems to have most interested Vermont farmers. Winters in the area could be harsh with temperatures often dropping to -20˚ F, according to one writer. Many of the popular market apples simply couldn’t handle such severe cold. Various horticulturalists had started importing varieties from Russia in hopes of finding or breeding apples that could survive in the coldest climes of Vermont, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, but maybe the native-born McIntosh Red would prove to be a winner for the farmers of the north.

from The Canadian Horticulturist, 1900

The editor of The Enterprise and Vermonter set out the case in a piece entitled “A Remarkable Apple Discovered” March 1874. “This apple . . . originated in [Matilda, Dundas County] . . . transplanted from the edge of the forest seventy years ago, with perhaps twenty other trees found scattered about in the county, which was then an almost unbroken wilderness,” he wrote. “The other trees have been dead more than thirty years, but . . . the McIntosh Reds . . . are still alive, the tops being thrifty and healthy.” “[I]t is conceded that the frost,” he went on to write, “which is generally so fatal to the apple blossom, never injures this variety in the least. In some instances the ground about the trees has been frozen sufficiently hard to hold a horse, when they were in full bloom, but while other trees were entirely spoiled these were not in the least affected.” This is a singular statement, but if true could make a significant difference to a farmer’s potential bottom line. The papers were soon filled with notices that local nurserymen, including Clough’s son Storr, had grafted McIntosh Red trees ready for sale.

Buying ready grafted trees was something of a new phenomenon. For most of North America’s post-European settler history famers had simply either relied on whatever seedlings were at hand or grafted a seedling tree with a familiar variety themselves. There were a handful of plant nurseries early on, of course, but they mostly catered to the well to do, folks that could afford the significantly higher price tags. The situation had begun to change by the middle of the 19thcentury as selling fruit with recognizable and marketable names increased in importance. The farmer wanting to purchase ready-grafted trees could, then as now, write to a nursery and request a printed catalog, then mail in an pre-paid order and wait for delivery. But there was also another option: the nursery agent. This fellow (it was always a man) would travel the rural highways, knocking on doors with catalog in hand, taking orders for trees and other plants. The order eventually reached the nursery, and some time later the nursery agent would return with the goods. This had tremendous advantages for the rural farmer, for he (also invariably male) would have the opportunity to purchase new and improved varieties that he might not otherwise have know existed, or access stock that was unavailable locally. An article in the February 1871 issue of The Horticulturist stated that “probably nearly three-fourths of the nursery stock sold throughout the United States, is sold by personal solicitation of agents or dealers . . .” a remarkable percentage, if true. The system worked splendidly, too, provided the nursery agent was an honest one (the many help wanted ads stressed the importance of good character). 

Unfortunately, this was not always the case. “[A]pparently the great evils the agriculturalist has to deal with are insects and tree-dealers; these two, and the greatest of these is the tree-dealer,” wrote editor James Vick in 1879 (Vick’s Illustrated Monthly Magazine, October). There was, for example, no guarantee that the trees an agent brought to the farm were actually what was ordered, and it took years before the tree would bear enough fruit to tell one way or the other. “I purchased six of those trees [Wealthy] of one of those unreliable beats.,” complained one farmer in a letter to the Vermont Farmer in April 1880. “Three of these trees never leaved (sic) out, and the other three proved to be Soulard crabs.” Anyone could pass themselves off as an agent by ordering a catalog from a well-respected nursery, declare themselves to be that nursery’s representative, then order and pass on possibly quite inferior stock from practically anywhere. The most reputable nurseries took great pains to ensure that their representatives were trustworthy. Some gave their agents special catalogs prominently bearing the agent’s name on the cover or issued official certificates to them, regularly noting these means of authentication in their ads. Others required agents to send in their order books as soon as they were filled so the nursery could monitor sales and makes sure inventory was adequate and properly labeled. 

These measures seem to have had an effect, for despite the problems reported in the press, nursery agents proved to be anenormous boon to both the farmer and nursery industry. By the 1890s McIntosh was being grown across the continent, from British Columbia to Pennsylvania. It grows best in cooler climates; in places with warmer autumns it tends to fall from the tree before becoming thoroughly ripe. It is still one of the the top 10 apples grown in the U.S. today and accounted for more that a quarter of the Canadian apple crop in 2018, though there are rumors it is loosing ground to newer, sweeter, and crunchier cultivars. 

McIntosh Red was never touted as a great apple for cider, though doubtless more than one found its way into the press as part of a blend. The cidermakers of the 19th century may not have realized what they were missing. A number of 21stcentury cidermakers have taken to McIntosh and are making some throughly tasty ciders with it. The best balance McIntosh’s bright acid with just a hint of sweetness, and when grown well this apple seems to make ciders with real intensity and complexity of flavor, often with an interesting herbal note. 

Liberty Ciderworks, Spokane, WA – semi-dry; ripe apple, baked apple, sweet lemon, anise, pear skin, cardamon, mango; 2017; 8.2% ABV

Gowan’s Heirloom Cider, Philo, CA – semi-dry; ripe apple, baked apple, pear skin, lemon, almond, orange juice, fennel, ripe pear, cinnamon; 2018; sparkling; 6.8% ABV

Bauman’s Cider Company, Gervais, OR – semi-dry; ripe apple,, blossom, cinnamon, ripe pear, lemon juice, pear skin, guava, lemon grass, fresh thyme; sparkling; 2021; 6.0% ABV (apples grown in the Bitteroot Valley, MT)

West County Cider, West-View Orchard “M2”, Sheridan, MA – semi-dry; ripe apple, pear skin, mint, rose, anise, fresh thyme, lemon, yellow plum; sparkling; undated; 6.5% ABV

West County Cider, West-View Orchard “Pura Vida”, Sheridan, MA – semi-sweet; ripe apple, ripe pear, lemon, green apple skin, lemon rind, fresh thyme; sparkling; undated; 5.5% ABV

Newtown Pippin

The global trade in fresh fruit amounts to about 80 tons a year with a value of roughly 75 billion dollars. Bananas, limes, grapes, mangos, pineapples, oranges, pears, blueberries, strawberries, and kiwis zip around the world by air, sea, train, and truck. Most of us don’t give the fact that our fruit has traveled so far a second thought. The mass globalization of the fruit trade is relatively modern phenomena, however, and there’s an argument to be made that it was pioneered by an apple, and an American apple at that, the remarkable Newtown Pippin.

Newtown Pippin was born on Long Island in the village of Newtown (now Elmhurst in Queens County) on land owned by one of the Moores, Gershom or Samuel (historical accounts differ). Their father, Rev. John Moore, had been one of the village’s founders in the 1640s, and the original tree was probably planted not long after. At the time, New York was still New Netherland under the control of the tolerant Dutch. That lasted until 1664 when the Dutch governor turned over all the territory that they “owned” in the area to the British and their four threatening war ships, despite the fact that the two countries were technically at peace. The good folk of Newtown had declared their allegiance to England’s king, Charles II, some months before, so local life didn’t change much. In the long run, though, it made it easier for the villagers to significantly expand their geographic horizons.

The apple’s next move was probably to what would become northern New Jersey. Long Island’s land was finite and already largely spoken for. Since farms had to be a minimum size to support even one family, younger sons were forced to move elsewhere if they wanted farms and families of their own. Farming in this age was largely about subsistence, growing enough food to support oneself and one’s family, though having excess to sell or trade was an important part of the economy, too. Access to a waterway was key, roads being few and far between (and bad, to boot). Thus did many of the sons of Newtown, including several of the Moores, begin the 18th century by moving to land between the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. Most settled in Hopewell along the east side of the Delaware, giving them market access to the largest city in North America at the time, Philadelphia. The Moores that moved to Hopewell probably brought Newtown Pippin with them, though nothing has been found in the documentary record to confirm this (so far).

What the Moore family had undoubtedly figured out was that not only was Newtown Pippin a tasty apple, it was a perfect apple for shipping, firm enough that, if packed well, it didn’t bruise. It kept well for months, even without refrigeration, and even got more complex and aromatic with time. (Anyone who has inadvertently kept a case of Newtown Pippins in the back of their car for a week and been enveloped by the rich, tropical aromas they emit can attest to this.) Others would have noticed this, too, and gotten scion wood to graft trees of their own. By the mid-18th century, advertisements for land with bearing orchards of Newtown Pippins were appearing in various colonial newspapers–the New York Gazette (1751), Pennsylvania Gazette (1752), and Virginia Gazette (1766), for example. Nurserymen were advertising grafted trees for sale as early as the 1750s, significant in an era when planting a new orchard from seed was commonplace. Farmers were selling apples in nearby towns, and shipping them to the plantations in the Caribbean where land was more profitably used for sugar production, not food. 

Then, in 1758, Benjamin Franklin, settled in London as a newly appointed colonial agent, wrote home to his wife Deborah chiding her for not having sent him any apples. “Newton Pippin would have been most acceptable,” he wrote.Good wife that she was, she soon did, making them the first American apples to cross the Atlantic. Franklin was happy to share them with his friends, of which he had many, and they responded enthusiastically to this tasty fruit from afar. One was Peter Collinson, who had a business relationship with American horticulturalist John Bartram. Bartram had for years been sending Collinson regular shipments of American plants he’d either grown or collected; Collinson in turn sold them to English aristocrats intent on filling their estates with the “exotic” plants of the new world. Within months of trying Franklin’s Newtown Pippins Collinson was asking Bartram to send him grafted trees and/or scion wood, which Bartram did, though he complained that he thought there were better apples. Another was Dr. John Fothergill who seems to have given some apples to explorer Joseph Banks, probably in dried form. Banks took them with him as he explored the South Seas with Captain James Cook and the HMS Endeavour between 1768 and 1771, including Tahiti, Australia, and New Zealand. A diary entry for December 1769 notes that they made an excellent pie.

By the 1770s, newspapers throughout the UK were advertising Newtown Pippin nursery stock for sale, and orchardists across the land were trying to grow their own–and largely failing. Plants have their place, their terrior, and Newtown Pippin wasn’t meant for England’s cooler, damper climate. Even prominent horticulturalist William Forsyth, superintendent of the royal gardens at Kensington and St. James’ Place, admitted that “[t]he New-Town Pippin is a fine apple in good season, but seldom ripens with us,” (A Treatise on the Management and Cultivation of Fruit Trees, 1803).Enterprising merchants set about importing apples instead, slowed down only a little during the few years it took for the colonies to break their political ties with the motherland. The demand did nothing but increase after 1834 when Andrew Stevenson, Minister to the U.K. under Andrew Jackson, and his wife Sally sent the newly crowned Victoria a basket of Newtown Pippins grown in their home state of Virginia (where they went by the name Albermarle Pippin). The appleproved to be such a delight to the royal household that the excise duty applied to the importation of apples was lifted for that variety only.

With a ready and enthusiastic market available, American farmers planted Newtown Pippins by the thousands. On the east coast they became a signature apple in Virginia, New York’s Hudson Valley, and the shores of Lake Ontario, with farmers shipping apples by the ton to English markets. They traveled west as European settlers did, and really took hold in the western states because of their ready access to international shipping channels. Newtowns arrived in Oregon with Henderson Lewelling in 1847 and spread from there, north to Hood River, for example where exports started in the 1890s and where they are still grown today. 

Newtown Pippin headed south, too, first to the Gold Country around Sacramento in the early 1850s, then to California’s Pajaro Valley near Watsonville, an hour and half south of San Francisco. Exports from the area started in the 1870s, first to the fast growing city of San Francisco, then farther afield to Great Britain and it’s colonies in Australia and the far east. It also became the signature apple of Martinelli’s cider company, which started in the 1880s making fermented cider but segued into sweet sparkling juice when Prohibition reared its ugly head. Newtown Pippin was, and still is, the mainstay of Martinelli’s cider, so even as exports eventually fell off in the 20th century, though it took many decades, farmers kept those old trees in the ground instead of replanting with fancy new market varieties like Honeycrisp.

Newtown Pippins from 36 orchards across the U.S., 2017

The popularity and importance of Newtown Pippin cannot be underestimated. It has not only been grown on a commercial scale continuously in the U.S. for the last 300 years, but in South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia as well. And though today you are more likely to find it as a fresh apple at a farmer’s market or roadside fruit stand, there are still a significant number of Newtown Pippin orchards around, meaning Newtown Pippin is one of the most widely available single varietal ciders in the country. 

I’ve been evaluating, and collecting, Newtown Pippin ciders for the last five or six years and had more than two dozen to try recently, some of which I’d had before. To be frank, most of the older ones had not held up that well. What had been lively and interesting flavors in 2018, when they’d been in bottle just a year or two, were now faded to almost nothing, not oxidized or flawed, just gone. To age well, wine, and presumably cider, needs a couple of things. The first is structure, significant acid or tannin or both to allow it to evolve into something more interesting with time. The second is a certain intensity of flavor, enough of those wonderful aroma and flavor components to morph from fresh bright fruit to honeyed, dried versions, for example. My memory tells me that these older ciders had the latter, but it seems not the former. Newtown Pippin in general does not have much in the way of tannin, though there are exceptions, and the ciders that had not held up had only moderate acids levels. If a cider I try is not at its best, it doesn’t get included, so that’s all I’ll say about them here. 

There were several exceptions made from apples harvested in 2016. Two, made by Angry Orchard and Liberty Ciderworks, still had some of the highest acid levels of any of the older Newtowns I tried giving them that needed structure. The others were two ciders made by Tilted Shed Ciderworks. The fruit for these came from two different orchards, one in the Pajaro Valley near Watsonville and the other in Sonoma County, but both were dry-farmed (no irrigation or meaningful rain from at least April until October). They were pressed and processed separately using the traditional method, en tirage for 16 months before being disgorged. In early 2018 each was distinguishable from the other, the one from Sonoma County full of intense flavors of root beer, lemon, and peppermint and the Pajaro Valley example showing more notes of baking spice and savory dried herbs. What was truly interesting, however, is that both had two to two and a half times as much measurable tannin as any of the 30-some-odd Newtown Pippins sampled at the time, as much as is typically reported for Kingston Black apples (2 – 2.5 g/L). You could feel it in the cider’s body as well. Dry-farmed fruits, whether grapes or tomatoes, have a well-deserved reputation for a greater intensity and complexity of flavor, and in these examples that orcharding practice may well have pumped up the tannin content of the apples, too.

As for the Newtown Pippins of more recent vintage, their acid levels were generally moderate, and though tannins were noticeably present, more so than one might expect from what is generally considered a table apple, the levels did not approach those of the dry-farmed fruit. There was often a savory herbal quality and tropical fruit notes, especially those made from apples grown in a more Mediterranean climate.

Scar of the Sea Wines, San Luis Obispo – dry; lemon juice, lemongrass, melon, dried apple, dried pear, dried thyme; sparkling; 2018; 8% ABV

Haykin Family Cider, Aurora, CO – semi-dry; ripe yellow apple, ripe pear, pear sauce, lemon, honey, ripe peach; sparkling; 2017; 6% ABV (apples grown in Yakima, WA)

South Hill Cider, Ithaca, NY – dry; green apple, green apple skin, green plum, dried apple, slight bitterness; sparkling; 2019; 8.6% ABV

Potter’s Craft Cider, Charlottesville, VA – dry; fresh green apple, mango, allspice, green pear, thyme, toast, bread dough, smoke, slightly bitter; sparkling; 2020; 8.4% ABV

Tanuki Cider, Santa Cruz, CA – dry; tart yellow apple, lime zest, lemon pith, dried herbs; sparkling; 2020; 8.5% ABV

Ethic Ciders, Sebastopol, CA – dry; cardamon, nutmeg, mango, lemon rind, honeysuckle, nectarine, pineapple, rose; sparkling; 2021; 7.5% ABV

Golden State Cider, Sebastopol, CA – dry; hay, dried twigs, ripe yellow apple, lemon rind, dried thyme, melon; sparkling; 2021; 7.9% ABV

Two Broads Cider, San Luis Obispo, CA – dry; fresh yellow apple, pineapple, fresh thyme, fir tips, lemon, apricot, pear skin; petillant; 2019; 8.5%

Angry Orchard, Walden, NY – dry; smoke, jalepeño, dried thyme, dried apple, stewed pear; sparkling; 2016; 8.8% ABV

Liberty Ciderworks, Spokane, WA – dry; ripe yellow apple, fresh and dried, pear skin, lemon juice, dried apricot, dried thyme; sparkling; 2016; 7.2% ABV

Tilted Shed Ciderworks, Windsor, CA – dry; dried green herbs, dried apple, dried pineapple, lemon juice, lemon pith, green plum; sparkling; 2016; 9% ABV (apples grown at Vulture Hill, Sonoma County)

Tilted Shed Ciderworks, Windsor, CA – dry; dried apple, dried pear, dried thyme, lemon peel, lemon pith, dried mango, dried oregano, honey, creamy texture; sparkling; 2016; 9% ABV (apples grown at the Five Mile Orchard, Pajaro Valley)

Golden Russet

My first deep dive into apple history came five or six years ago. I’d been asked to be part of an evening focused on the apple called Golden Russet which would include some history, a chance to sample fresh fruit from various orchards across the country, and single variety, or mostly single variety, ciders. The goal was to see if we could understand the apple a bit, tease out common flavors and textures the way wine enthusiasts do with their favorite grape varieties. Little did I know just what a challenge the history part of this project would be.

Golden Russet isn’t a particularly distinctive name. At its most obvious it indicates an apple with two notable physical features. The first is yellow skin, which is unexceptional when it comes to apples. The second is russeting, a rough, brown corky sort of texture on the skin surface, like your basic russet potato. Russeting isn’t particularly uncommon either for it appears on any number of apples, sometimes just in the cavity where stem meets fruit and sometimes over most or all of the skin. The presence and degree of russeting, though ultimately under genetic control, is significantly influenced by environmental factors, such as water on the apple’s surface early in its growth, so there can be a certain amount of year-to-year variation in the same orchard. As a name, then, while generally descriptive, it is not unique, unlike Slack-ma-girdle or even Porter’s Perfection. 

Another complicating factor for the apple historian is the habit that people had of not fastidiously adhering to single names but of adopting new ones as the fruit moved with pioneering families as they relocated to different, often quite isolated, parts of the country. A perfect example of this phenomena is the Putnam Russet. In the late 18th century, a number of members of the old Puritan family of Putnam moved from New England to the newly opened Northwest Territory and what would become the state of Ohio, although it took a while to clear out the native people that were already living there. They brought their favorite apples with them, of course, and one became known in those parts as the Putnam Russet. Several members of the Putnam family had a prominent place in Ohio society, so one can imagine why the locals attached the Putnam name to a well-liked fruit. It was not until a few prominent mid-19th century eastern pomologists figured out that Putnam Russet was identical to the venerable Roxburry Russet that the name was largely dropped, though Putnam lives on even today as a synonym for Roxburry, which is, incidentally, also a yellow russeted apple.

The 19th century ushered in a great enthusiasm for agricultural progress. Societies were formed by the dozens to debate and recommend reforms in farming practices, new farm machinery, and the best varieties of produce, apples included, for any given region. Books and periodicals on the same subjects flourished. New commercial nursery operations arose to provide “improved” varieties of fruit trees enticing farmers with stock that had a marketable name and reasonably well-understood growth habits. Some nurserymen recognized that problems had arisen with the names of varieties as well as in how they were being, sometimes inconsistently, described. Pointedly voicing his concerns in the 1843 Transactions of the New York Agricultural Society, Macedon, N.Y. nurseryman John J. Thomas lamented that among the difficulties being faced by the industry were “the numerous errors in the names of fruits, existing all over the country, and the consequent perplexity in procuring those which are genuine,” as well as the “multiplication of new varieties differing but slightly from old and celebrated ones,” and “the impossibility of speaking with confidence [about the identity of a particular variety] in many cases from mere descriptions, however excellent and perfect they may be.” Is it any wonder, then, that the apple(s) grown today under the name Golden Russet may be of uncertain provenance?

Spend enough time reading 19th century texts and you’ll find a handful of apples that come up time and time again called Golden Russet, or with Golden Russet as one of their synonyms–Bullock’s Pippin, Hunt Russet, English Russet, Perry Russet, and Golden Russet of Western New York occur the most frequently. There are others, as one might guess, but they seem to have mostly had regional reputations and may be less likely to have strayed far from their original territory.

The first to appear in the pomological literature was Bullock’s Pippin described by William Coxe in A View of the Cultivation of Fruit Trees in 1817. “This is one of the finest apples in New-Jersey, in the autumn and early winter months,” he wrote. “[T}he skin is yellow, inclining to a russet, the flesh is yellow, rich, juicy, tender and sprightly; it is an excellent cider apple.” It’s original name was Sheep-nose, which Coxe disliked, so he changed it opting instead to cite the name of the family on whose farm it had been first planted. Quaker John Bullock, member of one of the first families in Massachusetts, had bought land near New Hanover in Burlington County, West Jersey in the late 17th or early 18thcentury, and his grandsons Isaac and Amos where farming there still in the 1820s. 

Nurseryman and pomologist Andrew J. Downing thought that Bullock’s Pippin/Sheep-nose was a superb apple as well, so much so that he declared both original names to be demeaning and unworthy of such a splendid fruit. In 1845, he insisted it be renamed as the American Golden Russet. Some writers and nurserymen complied, but just as many kept the old names, and even into the 20th century all three names would be cited as synonyms, along with Pippin Bullock and, mysteriously, Little Pearmain. It was a popular apple grown throughout the Eastern seaboard and New England, moving west as settlers did.

Next on the list is Hunt Russet. The Hunts were another one of the original European settler families of Massachusetts, occupying land purchased from the Pennacook that became the town of Concord around 1635. Situated nicely on the crest of broad hill that the Pennacook had called Punkatasset north east of town, the farm was occupied and worked by the descendants of the original Hunt, William (1605-1669), for at least the next 250 years. 

One of the first, if not the first, mentions of the apple was printed in an 1853 issue of the New England Farmer. Editor Simon Brown knew it well, for he had spent time working on farms in Concord in the 1840s. Brown’s inquiries suggested that the original tree was planted by Deacon Simon Hunt (1704-1790), but by the mid-18th century the apple had spread throughout New England. “For productiveness, for the dessert, kitchen, for the home market and exportation, and for its beauty of form and coloring, the Hunt Russet, we think, excels any other apple in New England, and stands at the head of them all!”, he gushed. “Skin yellowish-green, nearly covered with russet, which is thickest near the stalk,” the Hunt Russet went on to be called by various writers American Golden Russet of New England, Golden Russet of Massachusetts, New England Golden Russet, and Russet Pearmain, and was on at least two occasions conflated with Bullock’s Pippin. 

Golden Russet apples from orchards across the US, fall 2017

Then there is English Russet, though the name I prefer is one of its synonyms, Poughkeepsie Russet, since it is, after all, an American apple. It was listed under the latter name in the 1832 catalog for the Prince family’s Long Island, NY nursery, one of 381 apple varieties offered that year. The catalog included a note that it was both American and good for cider and also gave it a second name, Nine Partners Russet. Both Poughkeepsie and Nine Partners are in Dutchess County, NY. Poughkeepsie is one of the area’s oldest towns and county seat. Nine Partners is the name of the land patent granted in 1697 to a group of nine English and Dutch land speculators who hoped to make, or increase, their fortunes leasing land to new arrivals. 

Unhelpfully, none of the 19th century horticultural writers noted the name of the person that planted the original tree, but it is possible that it was someone by the name of Haskins. A book of biographical sketches written in 1916 for the Massachusetts genealogical society included one for a Daniel Haskins, noting that his oldest recorded ancestor was Abel Haskins. Abel and his wife Mary, the sketch went on, set out from Nine Partners, Dutchess County in 1772 to become one of the founding families of Darby, Vermont. Mary, “a woman of uncommon energy. . .brought and apple tree with her from New York. . .becoming one of the features of the homestead and known as the “Nine Partners” apple.” One 19th century pomologist listed Vermont as the state of origin for the English Russet lending a certain credence to the Haskins story.

How it came to be called English Russet is never explained though it, too, went on to be planted well outside of its home territory. It even appears under the Nine Partners name in an 1831 German gardening book in a list of American apples being offered for sale by a French nursery located in the Loire Valley, and included another synonym, Little Russet, which is quite curious. It was certainly grown throughout New York for the export trade by the early 20th century, and had also developed a reputation for making good cider. 

Perry Russet first shows up in 1853 in the Wisconsin Iowa Farmer and Northwestern Cultivator. J.C. Brayton wrote a description of it’s appearance, that it had “and excellent sub-acid, spicy flavor,” and would “probably keep til May,” an attractive attribute for an apple at the time. “It has been received from Western New York, and Northern Ohio, under various names. The name here adopted was given by Mr. F. K. Phenix, of Delvan, who was first acquainted with the fruit in Perry, Wyoming County, N.Y.” Nine years later, J.C. Plumb wrote “It was formerly introduced into this state [Wisconsin] under the above names [Perry Russet, syn. Golden Russet], but seems to have been lost sight of by Eastern Fruit-growers” (The Wisconsin Farmer and Northwest Cultivator, 1862). That same year, O.S. Willey, another Wisconsin nurseryman added his two cents by writing “Too many can not be had, as it is the best of all the Russets,” but unhelpfully added “Perry Russet is a sort sent from the east under various cognomens, as Winter Russet, Poughkeepsie Russet, Golden Russet, etc.,” (The Horticulturalist, vol. 17, 1862). No one had any more to offer on the Perry Russet’s origins, though it is clear that there was already considerable confusion as to which russet was which.

Last but not least, Golden Russet of Western New York. This apple started out under the name English Golden Russet, the name given to it by A.J. Downing when he described it in 1845 in The Fruit and Fruit Trees of America, mostly so he could point out its inferiority to his beloved Bullock’s Pippin/Sheepnose/American Golden Russet. By 1850, the English Golden Russet, which many authors claimed to be of foreign origin, had acquired the synonym Golden Russet of Western New York (namely in J.J. Thomas’ American Fruit Culturist). It appeared on lists of recommended apples in periodicals published from New England to Wisconsin, but no one appears to have attempted to explain its origins. It was a valuable market apple, and where it came from didn’t seem to be important.

While each an every one of these apples, and a handful more besides, went by another name, more often than not whatever that name had been was simply truncated to the simpler Golden Russet, regardless which variety it actually was. All the various interested parties were well aware of this issue, as well as the fact that it could be challenging, especially for the ordinary farmer, to tell any of the various Golden Russets apart. Any number of horticulturalists took a stab at writing some treatise that would eliminate the confusion, which most often came down to differences in the growth habits of the trees themselves, admitting that the actual fruits were often very difficult to tell one from the other. English/Poughkeepsie Russet had upright shoots; English Golden Russet/Golden Russet of Western New York’s were slender and weeping and had prominent spots; etc. These are not traits that can be spotted in a newly grafted tree, nor for many years after. By then, everyone involved would have ceased to think much about exactly which Golden Russet they were growing, just wanting to get on with business. It is, then, nearly impossible to tell just which of these various varieties is being grown where today.

That being said, in the end it may not really matter except to the consummate apple enthusiast, which you might well be if you’ve kept on reading this far. The single variety Golden Russet ciders I tasted through recently ran the gamut from bright and easy drinking to deeply complex, in part due to their age, though a cider that hasn’t got the stuff to begin with will eventually just fade to nothing. All were reasonably high in acid, and some were surprisingly tannic. There were a few common themes–quince, melon, peach, honey/honeycomb–though they didn’t run consistently through all of the ciders. Perhaps that is the consequence of using different Golden Russets; perhaps is it just the effects of terroir or the choice of yeast. Perhaps we’ll never know.

Big Hill Ciderworks, Gardners, PA – dry; tart pear skin, quince, yellow apple, lemon, lime, banana, apricot skin, ripe tannins; sparkling; 2016; 8.4% ABV

Liberty Ciderworks, Spokane, WA – dry; baked apple, rose, sour orange, clove, ripe peach, dried hay, dried nectarine, beeswax, ripe tannins; sparkling; 2017; 10.2% ABV

Haykin Family Cider, Aurora, CO – semi-sweet; spire yellow apple, pear skin, lemon, ripe melon, lemon curd, lychee, peach, mild tannins; sparkling; 2018; 7.9% ABV (apples grown in Yakima, WA)

Kite and String, Interlaken, NY – dry; ripe yellow apple, ripe pear, lemon, honeysuckle, leesy; bread dough, hay, green herbs, ripe tannins; sparkling; undated; 8.4%

Tieton Ciderworks, Yakima, WA – semi-sweet; quince, apple pear, baked lemon, lime, ripe melon, slightly bitter; undated; 6.9%

Two K Farms, Suttons Bay, MI – semi-dry; green apple, pear, pear skin, a touch of honey, just ripe apricot; 2018; 5.9%

Bauman’s Cider Company, Gervais, OR – semi-dry; rose geranium, ripe plum, yellow apple, ripe melon, quince, lemon pith, mandarin orange, ripe apricot, ripe tannins; sparkling; 2021; 9.9% ABV

South Hill Cider, Ithaca, NY – dry; baked apple, ripe yellow apple, pear skin, lemon, honeycomb, quince, hay, yellow plum; sparkling; 2019; 10.9% ABV

Stoic Cider, Prescott, AZ – dry; honeycomb, baked apple, clove, nutmeg, lemon, dried apricot, hazelnut, candied orange peel, medium tannin; sparkling; 2017; 8.5% ABV

Eve’s Cidery, Van Etten, NY – dry; honey, ripe melon, peach, apricot, hay, beeswax, tart orange juice, yellow plum, ripe tannins; still; 2019; 7% ABV

Sundstrom Cider, NY – dry; honey, dried peach, dried apricot, lemon, dried mandarin orange, almond, hay, dried thyme, clove, cinnamon; still; 2015; 9.4% ABV