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A hard cider and bourbon cocktail for the holiday season

The Stone Fence cocktail includes bourbon, hard cider and rhubarb bitters, although it can also be made with rum.

The Stone Fence cocktail includes bourbon, hard cider and rhubarb bitters, although it can also be made with rum.

(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)
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If you’ve never run across a Stone Fence — a Colonial-era tipple that combines hard cider with hard liquor — the holiday season is a good time to get acquainted, because it’s a no-fuss workhorse of a cocktail. It’s a crowd-pleaser that’s both festive and potent.

The Stone Fence plays nicely with the yuletide season for several reasons. First, it’s essentially a non-heated, higher-octane version of a mulled cider drink, itself a riff on the winter holiday wassail. Second, the ingredients are few, readily available and comparatively inexpensive. Third, it can be modified easily to individual tastes (unlike, say, that punchbowl full of hot buttered rum).

Finally, if made right, it’s a drink that will insulate you against all kinds of seasonal strife. (According to legend, the Green Mountain Boys’ 1775 raid on Fort Ticonderoga, one of the opening salvos of the Revolutionary War, came after a night full of Stone Fences.)

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The cornerstone of the Stone Fence is hard apple cider, though everything else that goes in the glass from that point on is a matter of personal preference. Woodchuck Amber from the Middlebury, Vt.,-based Vermont Hard Cider Co. is nationally available and stands up well, Harpoon Craft Cider, if you can find it, is another good option. But really, you could use any hard cider.

Most bartenders and drink historians who’ve taken a good look at the history of the Stone Fence point out that the distilled hard liquor in the mix was most likely rum, thanks to the triangle trade of the time.

But in the 21st century there’s little need to be yoked to the conventions of historical accuracy — some versions are made with whiskey and still others with applejack. The key is to find something with a flavor profile that doesn’t get lost against the cider. On that front, Maker’s Mark bourbon does yeoman’s duty.

The drink’s ingredients beyond that are a barkeep’s curiosity cabinet of personal preferences; some recipes call for allspice and nutmeg, others Angostura bitters and/or a splash of vinegar. (One version, on a Portland, Ore., drinks menu, achieved the rare apple trifecta of combining hard cider, applejack and apple vinegar.)

Here too is an opportunity for experimentation and self-expression. Fee Brothers rhubarb bitters, if you can find a bottle (available online), is kind of like the rug in “The Big Lebowski” – it really ties the whole drink together.

But a word to the wise: The Stone Fence has the propensity to be Tiki-drink sneaky, which may or may not be the source of its curious name. According to American Bottler Volume 24 (published in 1901), “Its name came, tradition saith, because, when properly prepared, its hardness is only paralleled by a pile of granite bowlders.” Or, as David Wondrich, writing about the drink for Esquire magazine, put it: “The name ‘Stone Fence’ alludes to the effect produced by getting outside too many of these, which is not unlike that produced by running downhill into one.”

But, with the year coming to an end, it’s worth invoking Robert Frost’s classic line, “good fences make good neighbors.” Given the simplicity of the recipe and how readily customizable it is, it could be said that a Stone Fence might make a pretty great neighbor itself.

Ethan Allen’s Stone Fence

*We’ve dubbed the bourbon and rhubarb bitters version of the drink the Ethan Allen Stone Fence as homage to the brash and bibulous leader of the Green Mountain Boys.

Makes 1 cocktail

2 ounces Maker’s Mark bourbon

3/4 cup hard cider

5 dashes Fee Brothers rhubarb bitters

1. Add five ice cubes to a rocks glass followed by two ounces of bourbon.

2. Stir and add five dashes of rhubarb bitters.

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