Yes, it’s my turn to pound the keyboard for our unsolicited week of anything-but-whisky, and it will come as a surprise to precisely none of you that I’ve chosen to get back on my cidery soapbox.
But where to start, and what to say? I don’t have time or space to wax lyrical over cider’s heritage, varieties, terroir, regions. It’d take far too long to deal with the misconceptions, connotations and legal absurdities that have given cider such a persistent and unfair image problem. And with just one day in a year to talk cider here on Malt*, it would seem a missed opportunity if I put a spotlight on just one expression or producer.
So, as a fairly straightforward cop-out, I have considered a case of ciders and perries that I would rush to buy straight away if I came home to discover my entire stash stolen, smashed or, likeliest of all, guzzled by the geophysicist.
To impose some semblance of order and kid myself that I’m providing at least a quantum of useful information, the first six have been chosen as exemplary representations of individual styles. For the last six I have just picked whatever I wanted and offer no apologies for doing so. No producers are represented more than once and I’ve not included bottlings that aren’t findable in the UK (at the time of writing). Oh – and I’m not doing scores today, either. If it’s on this list, take that as my recommendation – nay, insistence – that you buy it. And don’t even think of drinking them from a pint glass.
*This piece rather got away with me. I thought I was being reasonably concise by my standards, then I looked at the word count and even I thought “oops”. So you get a two-parter, you lucky things. Today you get the six representatives of individual styles, tomorrow it’ll be the no-rules wildcards.
Alright. Without further ado, let’s do cider properly.
1. Raison d’Être 2017, Ross on Wye Cider & Perry Company
(Dry, bottle-conditioned cider, Herefordshire)
If it hadn’t been for the “no more than one cider per producer” rule, Ross could have had about five entries on this list. I’ve previously called it the most important cidery in the world, and I’d still stand by that now. Not necessarily because they always make my favourite ciders (though they’re right up there) but because no one else boasts a range that offers so much by way of education.
The overwhelming majority of Ross on Wye’s ciders are bone-dry, and that’s incredibly rare in cider. Thanks to a British public that talks dry but drinks sweet, a huge number of commercially available ciders are several semitones more sugary than their label suggests. Only Ross, and a small handful of others, have the conviction to go all the way with fermentation and then leave it there. And no one else has Ross’s commitment to showcasing apple and pear varieties – I have quite possibly tried more Ross ciders than our Mark has whiskies from Bruichladdich, and I barely feel I’ve scratched the surface.
Raison d’Être is their annually-produced flagship. A blend of Dabinett and Michelin, which Ross’s Albert Johnson holds as two of the most important cider apple varieties, fermented with wild yeasts in ex-whisky casks. Dabinett and Michelin are both classed as “bittersweets”, which translates as tannic with moderate acidity, and is the staple diet of the West Country and Three Counties cidermaker.
Colour: Burnished golden-orange. (Light haze)
On the nose: Autumn in a glass. Saline notes of lightly smoked bacon, woodsmoke and toasted savoury cooking spices mingle with the fallen leaves of the forest floor and the seashore’s salt-soaked rocks. Blood orange rind and a rich fatness of dried apples left out for a day or two. There’s even a little TCP that suggests that those ex-whisky casks had an Islay incumbent.
In the mouth: Utterly bone-dry, but so rich and thunderous is the fruit that there’s an initial fulsome ripeness. Smoked apples and woodchips, more savoury, smoky spice and then a big crash of fat, grippy tannins leading to a very drying finish of cigar tobacco, peanuts and oak, intertwangling with a sappy thread of greener fruit. Ridiculously layered and complex – comes at you in waves. There’s no other cider currently like it.
Serve: Cellar temperature. Room temperature is fine, too.
Drink with: Albert’s advice is a rare steak and I see no reason to disagree. Alternatively it’s a super candidate for a roast. Treat it as you would a good, weighty claret or something hefty from the Rhône and you’ll do just fine.
Drink when: you want a big, no-compromises whack of the essence of dry, bittersweet west country cider. And have a whole evening free to spend on it.
After an alternative? Try Wilding Run Deep
2. Royal County, Pang Valley
(Eastern Counties-style cider, Berkshire)
About £3, but you’ll have to come to Berkshire and dig about a bit.
There were a few I could have included here – Starvecrow are well worth looking out for, many of Nightingale’s are essential drinking and I’ve loved what I’ve had from Whin Hill – but Pang Valley is just a 20 minute drive from me, and that tipped the balance. It’s a very new place – they’ve just pressed their second vintage – but their cidermaker, Rick Wyatt, is an old hand with an apple, and it shows.
Royal County is a classic Eastern counties style cider, which is to say that it is made with cooking and eating apples and is therefore pretty much without tannin and has a higher focus on acidity. Entirely the opposite, in short, to Raison d’Être. There can be a lamentable tendency for cider wonks to broadly ignore this style – even to disparage it a little – and it’s true that you do find a few flimsy, thin, feeble-tasting examples. This one, however, is not only a belter but one of the two best-value bottles on my list.
It was the original bottling from Pang Valley, and is something of a blueprint for the future, when Rick will be focussing entirely on the Eastern counties style. He’s playing around with assorted yeasts and blending as of the 2019 harvest and I heartily recommend that you watch this space.
Colour: Pale Gold.
On the nose: If Raison d’Être was autumn, this is spring. A meadow of a nose, lilting with nettle and hawthorn and chamomile and cut grass alongside a teasing, zesty lemon. Not a big nose, but a rather beguiling one.
In the mouth: Plumper-bodied than its aromas might have suggested (although fat, oily tears down the glass were a giveaway). The flavours broadly follow through from the nose; sherbet lemons and the freshness of mown lawns and trees in blossom. The sweetness is apparent, but not excessive, tempered by soft, appealing acidity and a delicate, unobtrusive mousse.
Serve: could go either way. I’d give it an hour in the fridge, personally. (The geophysicist would give it more … and loves this one).
Drink with: Seafood paella seems tailor-made for this. I just need to find someone who can cook seafood paella.
Drink when: you have cider-eschewing friends over and want to show them what they’re missing.
After an alternative? Falstaff Bramley from Nightingale scratches the same itch.
3. Tamoshanta 2016, Pilton
(Keeved cider, Somerset)
Keeved ciders were thin on the ground indeed when I took my first tentative sips a smidge over a decade ago. That was, unless you popped across the channel to Normandy and Brittany, where they were (and are) practically ubiquitous.
These days a growing handful of producers are tinkering with this old and arcane art, and – to my mind – not before time. You see keeving ticks several of the boxes that mainstream cider drinkers demand; sparkling, intensely-appley ciders with a full body, a good touch of sweetness and a low alcohol content – and it does all of that in a wholly natural way.
I shan’t go too deeply into the minutiae of it here … but every question you could conceivably have is thoroughly answered in this article. The shorthand is that it is a method which deprives yeast of nutrients, disabling them from fermenting the cider to dryness. And by bottling before the fermentation has finished a natural sparkle is created too.
When it comes to keeving, the first and last word in the UK goes to Pilton. Excellent keeves have also been conducted by such folk as Gregg’s Pit, Yarde, the Caledonian Cider Company, Worley’s and Ganley & Naish, but it has been the efforts of Pilton’s Martin Berkley that have really brought British keeving back, and Pilton remains my personal reference point.
I’ve chosen their Tamoshanta for this case because it has been finished and matured in old scotch whisky barrels and I know my audience. But it was also my mother’s pick when we visited Pilton in September, and since she won’t touch Scotch, Tamoshanta clearly has a good breadth of appeal.
Colour: deep copper
On the nose: The hallmark, to my mind, of a really good keeve, is a deep, fulsome bear-hug aroma of pure apple juice, and that’s just what this delivers in broad, generous, come-hither strokes. Plump red apples shot through with vanilla and light, oaky spice.
In the mouth: the aromas carry through perfectly onto the palate where the sweetness is tempered and beautifully balanced by a supple, sappy tannin such that, if not paying attention, you could be tricked into thinking this was almost dry. Again the flavours of fresh-pressed apples, vanilla and honey come in wide, easy-pleasing, juicy and satisfying waves. There is the lightest touch of an almost-sherried note; a teasing oxidative flutter of almond and an elusive smatter of sultana. Dangerously moreish fare.
Serve: Reasonably chilled. Couple of hours in the fridge.
Drink with: Normandy pork, if you want to follow my mother’s example. (And you’d do well to.)
Drink when: you want a hug-in-a-glass to banish the chills or get over a hard day at the office.
After an alternative? Smith Hayne’s 2017 (or 2018) will see you nicely.
4. Zero 2017, Find & Foster
(Champagne method cider, Devon)
“Champagne method” is actually a bit of a misnomer here. You see the secondary in-bottle fermentation by which Champagne derives its bubbly loveliness was first pioneered by English scientists on barrels of still Champagne wine.
But even before that it had been used in darkest Herefordshire on local ciders by a chap called Lord Scudamore, who was probably the most influential cider nerd of all time. (Admittedly not an enormously contested title.)
Given the ritzy associations it is hardly a surprise that champagne method cider is once again gaining traction. Several English wineries seem to do one as a bit of a token gesture – often with teeth-grinding copy telling drinkers to “forget other ciders … this is different”, as though they’re embarrassed to have made a cider at all.
The best, invariably, are made by people who have taken cider seriously in-and-of itself. Little Pomona’s Brut Crémant and anything from Chalkdown or Bollhayes are well worth the entry fee, as are the American offerings from Eden and Eve’s.
But I’ve gone with Find & Foster for three reasons. Firstly, because it is simply delicious – the handiwork of quite possibly the most highly-praised cidermakers of the last two years. Secondly because of the incredible work that Polly and Matt Hilton do in restoring the orchards of Devon – 90% of which have been lost in the last century. And finally because my champagne-nerd editor has tried their wares and likes them, and if it’s good enough for Mark, it’s good enough for you.
He hasn’t tried this one though – their new “Zero” – which refers to the Zero dosage it has received after being disgorged, making it Polly and Matt’s driest cider to date. It’s on the upper end of this selection’s pricing, but – honestly – good luck finding something made in such a small quantity, using such an expensive, time-consuming method – at anything near this value.
Colour: Polished brass
On the nose: Serious, grown-up, almost austere aromas waft up, borne by the crackling mousse with medium intensity. The apples are sharp; almost earthy-woody (not oaky; think the scent of living trees). There’s a stoniness that brings to mind unoaked Chablis.
In the mouth: The sharp apple and lemon fruit is more pronounced in the mouth. Indeed without the balancing body and roundness of the fizz it might be slightly challenging. As it is, the apples are lent a ripeness and fresh juiciness that is oh-so-alluring alongside the cider’s natural delicacy. Utterly bone-dry, though so clean is the fruit that the apples themselves almost give the perception of a touch of sweetness. Seashell and light, yeasty, autolytic notes flutter here and there, Incredibly poised, crystalline and defined; so crisp and clean you could cut glass with it! Still very much in its infancy and, to me, more about the fruit than the autolytic flavours of secondary fermentation. But already a very, very fine thing indeed.
Serve: well chilled
Drink with: something nauseatingly pretentious. Or – as you should with the best champagnes – the greasiest fish and chips you can find.
Drink when: you only have to share it with a maximum of one other person.
After an alternative? Eve’s Cidery is the last word in US traditional method. Autumn’s Gold is especially epic.
5. Ice Cider, Burrow Hill
(Ice cider, Somerset)
Obviously you all read my piece on Burrow Hill in 2018, right? So I don’t need to gush about the orchards, the place, the sensational products all over again. Because every single one of you, absolutely, definitely, totally read it. Right? Right. Read it again, just in case.
I visited it a second time back in September; wandered the orchards, still-rooms and cask houses with Matilda and Julian Temperley and loved it every bit as much. I don’t think I’ve had anything from Burrow Hill – cider or brandy – that I haven’t adored, but my favourite (possibly) is their ice cider.
Ice cider works along the same theory as ice wine. Freezing concentrates the juice, removing water and dialling up sugars and flavours. Fermented, you get a gorgeous, unctuous, mouthcoating glass of weapons-grade nectar.
The difference is that ice wine is generally made by allowing grapes to freeze on the vine. That doesn’t easily work for apples – too big, too dense. There are a couple of orchards in Canada that get cold enough, but even there it doesn’t work every year. The solution is to press the apples and allow the juice itself to freeze (with a little help, if the winter is unseasonably warm) which is what Burrow Hill have done.
This place is another cidery that could have had repeat entries, had I allowed them. I’ve put them in the ice cider category, partially because theirs was my first, and partially because they give it a little ageing in French oak sherry casks, which – again – I thought would appeal to you lot.
Colour: Hazy reddish horse chestnut
On the nose: You can smell this from a mile off. Immense, billowing aromas of baked apple and rasin and nutmeg and dark chocolate. The theme of Christmas continues with brown sugar, plum duff and prune.
In the mouth: “Oh my word, that’s delicious,” squawks the gobsmacked geophysicist from the other room. “What on Earth? I just didn’t expect something so ridiculously yummy. It tastes like something you’d pour over ice cream.” To be honest that’s all you really need to know, but to it I will add that the unctuous, decadent, treacley mouthfeel is so perfectly skewered by acidity that this never for a moment feels cloying and retains an astounding freshness. The dried and baked apple plus fruitcake continues from the nose, accompanied by a beautiful accent of Oloroso sherry; cloves and chopped walnuts. A dusting of velvety tannins helps maintain that impeccable balance. But all this misses the wood for the trees: this wallops any dessert wine for the price. So I shall point at the geophysicist and say: “what she said”. Fans of pudding wine, of sherry and of sherry cask whisky should buy this in bulk.
Drink with: any pudding that doesn’t have chocolate in. I imagine something apple-themed would be best of all. Not being a pudding person, I tend to just drink it on its tod.
Drink when: The plates are cleared and a long evening in your comfiest chair is beckoning.
After an alternative? Canada’s Saragnat Avalanche 2012 really isn’t cheap. But it is worth every penny.
6. Writer’s Perry 2018, Oliver’s
(Dry, still perry, Herefordshire)
£5.70 – a bargain of obscene proportions
Perry deserves entire articles – nay, books – singing its praises and righting its misapprehensions. But I’m afraid that today I’m doing what everyone else does and simply tacking it onto a cider piece. Sorry, perry. Sorry, conscience.
Perry is the equivalent of wine or cider but made by fermenting the pressed juice of pears. You can use any pears, but generally the best, most complex flavours come from specific perry pears, such as Blakeney Red, Gin, Butt, Coppy and Thorn. They’re horrible, capricious little things that grow in the uppermost branches of thorny trees, take forever to reach maturity, offer tiny windows of ripeness and rot, unhelpfully, from the inside out.
But what they make, at their best, is a gorgeous, scintillating, vivacious, exhilarating liquid that merits the highest level of consideration and respect. Certainly it tends, on the whole, to be more vinous in character than the top end of ciders. Napoleon called it “the champagne of the English”, and I’m not sure that I wouldn’t, with a gun to my head, choose my favourite perries ahead of my favourite ciders. (By the slenderest whisker. Maybe. Maybe not.)
This is one that I absolutely adore. Picking it gave me more than the usual headaches – Ross-on-Wye and Gregg’s Pit do an exceptional line in perries, and you’ll find treats from Bartestree, Nempnett, Burrow Hill and Little Pomona too. Perhaps my all-time favourite English perry, jointly with this one, is the 2016 Special Reserve from Downside. But since Downside no longer exists, and the 2016 Special Reserve makes the excretion of rocking horses look as common as … well … normal muck, I’ve gone with Tom Oliver’s.
Tom is, for many people, the first and last word in English perry (I’d rank Ross and Gregg’s Pit alongside him, and Eric Bordelet might challenge for the global title … more on Eric tomorrow). There isn’t a more passionate champion of the drink, and given that at least one published cider writer has called Tom “the world’s best cider maker”, it really is some statement that his perries are generally held as even better.
He made this in collaboration with Dan Saladino. It’s a blend of Thorn, Blakeney Red, Copy and Winnall’s Longdon that has done its sleeping in an old whisky cask. (Unspecified, but if it wasn’t ex-Islay I’ll buy a hat and eat it). The fact that this is available to buy for under a tenner is an indictment of the British public’s sense of taste.
Colour: rose gold
On the nose: Beguiling notes of ripe citrus – lemons and oranges – easing through softer, juicier pear and stone fruit. The cask provides little dabs of vanilla and honey, accompanied by the lightest curls of smoke.
In the mouth: It’s hard to know what to focus on first when you take a sip. The rounded, soft, yet direct and mouthwatering citrusy acidity? The wave of big, ripe fruits that begin with a green, almost Aussie Semillon-esque tomato stem inflection and inflate into big, mouthfilling, tropical tones? Or those gorgeously ripe, controlled, perfectly-weighted tannins? I can’t think of many perries that have nailed the acidity-flavour-tannin balance so squarely. Smoky, spicy oak weaves in and out, fading to a drying peat. What a drink.
Serve: cellar temperature.
Drink with: Have a glass with roast chicken. And keep the rest of the bottle to savour slowly, unaccompanied.
Drink when: you have time to give it your undivided attention. And only then.
After an alternative? Any sparkling perry from Gregg’s Pit is almost essential-buying … if you can find one. The 2018 Brandy, Hendre Huffcap & Winnals Longdon is especially recommended …
Right. That’s half the case filled. See you tomorrow for the “anything goes” stuff.