I’ve read anyone’s fair share of press releases in my time scribbling up drinks, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a new-launch announcement quite like that which heralded the first instalment of The Fine Cider Company’s Pommelier Club, “The Barrel Room Series” from Oliver’s.
“A selection of single varietal ciders and perries available exclusively from The Fine Cider Company. Displaying all the wonders of time, wood, char, spirit, spontaneous ferment, cider apples and the good, the bad and the ugly of cider character including oxidation, volatile acidity, yeast autolysis and tannin phenolics.”
Before I’d had a chance to actually read the thing I’d had two separate messages asking whether I’d seen it.
I mean just think about it for a moment. There are some potentially scary words in there. Oxidation, of course, is inherent to anything aged in a barrel but, left unchecked, can easily tip a cider or perry into a muggy, sherried mouthful of cardboard juice. And volatile acidity is often simply the meet-the-parents smart-casual name for acetic. Which is the meet-the-parents, smart-casual name for vinegar, as we have previously covered, and not something you want in excess.
So this is a launch with chutzpah. Press release meets liability form. Welcome to the barrel room. Enter if you dare.
The literature accompanying these bottles, which are available only as a set, is even more transparent. I suspect Tom had a lot of fun putting the notes together; standout phrases include “there is … an almost obsessional fascination with single varietals and their individual characteristics” and, my favourite, “there has been a sizeable amount of hoo ha from the young team in the cider bubble over Foxwhelp”, which, obviously, is directed at Cath Potter.
Amongst Tom’s musings is an astonishing degree of information about each of the seven available ciders and perries. All are single varieties and single barrels. We are told vintage, barrel type, batch number, date of pressing, location of orchard, lot number (don’t even know what that refers to myself, personally), abv, original gravity and finished gravity. Which, in cider and perry terms, is a lot.
And yet the scary words continue. “Five barrels of cider and two of perry that honour the varieties, the barrels, spontaneous fermentation and time but reveal some of the supposed shortcomings of wood influence, the odd appearance of volatile acidity, yeast character and oxidation.” Later: “while far from complete or correct as drinks …”
This is, as I say, a complete first for me. On the one hand, openly admitting that your product contains what many people will consider to be faults has to go down as next-level honesty. I’m struggling to imagine a whisky distillery that would dare to write “to be frank, this sherry cask was absolutely rotten with sulphur”, or “really buggered up the cut points on this one lads – our bad – give it a whirl anyway”. On the other hand, one wonders what the purpose of knowingly bottling such potentially high-risk liquid could be.
The answer, I suspect, is – at least partially – education. Tom has made no secret of his opinion that single variety ciders and perries are generally flawed or limited curiosities that pale in comparison to a blend. His own occasional single-apples or single-pears tend to be made from fruit of which he has an excess and are certainly not – I believe – single barrels. So this series is an outlier in and of itself. A feeding, perhaps, of the curious cat that is the modern cider drinker; a bit of a concession to wonkishness. But a concession furnished with its own caveat emptor. Are you prepared to buy a set of ciders, some of which may be at best a challenge and at worst a fair bit dodgy? Will you go for something as a “learning experience” rather than simply as “a tasty drink”?
Enter the masochists of Malt. We’ve drunk some horrors in our time, from “Nepalese alcohol of the highest quality” to whisky’s most notorious stinker to beaver-gland essence. And our back-catalogue of Jura is not to be sniffed at either – figuratively or literally. So if anyone’s going to gird their tasting glasses and enter the barrel room it’s going to be us. And, since it’s cider, specifically me.
But I haven’t even poured yet and already I’m being glass-half-empty. We like barrels here on Malt, we like tasting single varieties and we certainly like Oliver’s Cider and Perry. Apart from this morning’s whopper of an interview they’ve featured in the inaugural “perry pairs” piece as well as our “essential case”, published in January. So, nerve-wracking words notwithstanding, we march metaphorically into the glass with hopes and optimism high.
Since Tom’s gone to the trouble of writing such detailed notes for each one, I’ll leave the introductions to him and follow them up with my reviews. The recommendation, printed in large, friendly letters on the box is “drink cold and let them warm up in the glass”. All are still. I’m told that six of these will initially be available from The Fine Cider Company in a mixed case for £54, whilst the White Beech will be available separately at circa £9 a bottle.
Blakeney Red Perry Aged in a Rum Barrel 2013 (6.6% – 1.005 Final Gravity) – review
Tom says: First up is the most ludicrous of all. A barrel of Blakeney Red Perry made from perry pears, collected from the wonderful old orchards belonging to Ann and Andy Shayle in Ashleworth, Gloucestershire. This was the 15th pressing of 2013 and was pumped directly into a rum barrel which was originally from the Caribbean (but on its 3rd use by us) and that is where the perry has stayed for 7 years. It has not been topped up and so the angel’s share was significant.
The resulting perry is wine like, still and clear with residual sweetness (which will be sorbitol) but right on the verge of VA coming on too strong along with gooseberry, rhubarb and melon fruit. An extraordinary testament to the character of the fruit (from big, old trees). The perfect drink pairing for spaghetti carbonara.
Adam adds: Seven years in barrel for Blakeney Red is indeed utterly bonkers. We’ve encountered a Tom Oliver Blakeney before – the rather lovely 2015. But I have absolutely no reference points for a perry that’s spent this long in wood.
On the nose: This has been in oak for six and a half years? What? What? No. I don’t believe you. This is honey and melon and golden, syrupy pear. Apricot jam and light toast. And despite those headier tones it’s still astonishingly fresh. But there is a flicker – I mean the tiniest flicker – of volatile acidity, expressing in a discordant way against that wonderful exotic fruit.
In the mouth: There are flavours here that sit somewhere between Vouvray and Sauternes. Lime marmalade, honey, gooseberry, orange blossom. Enormous fulsome pear. The texture’s lovely too – there’s not much tannin to speak of, but with maturity has come voluptuousness. In many ways this drinks like a drier version of some wonderful dessert wines. And where the oak is I haven’t a clue – this is neither woody nor rummy in the least – it’s all about that ripe pear fruit. But. There is a little bit of acetic sourness. It’s not enormous, but it’s a muttering distraction that doesn’t quite gel. This is pretty great – and remarkable for what it is … but I’m left just imagining how it might have been if bottled this time last year. So close.
Red Pear Perry Aged in an Ornellaia Barrel 2018 (7.6% – 1.004 Final Gravity) – review
Tom says: The 13th batch pressed in 2018 were some lovely Red Pears from Simon Dent in Preston Wynne. Pressed and then pumped directly into some super Ornellia red wine barrels. (with thanks to James at Little Pomona for sharing a load. I could tell by his excitement that they would be good barrels). We chose this combination to see if we could garner a touch of colour and see if the wine wood and pears went well together. I shall leave you to be the judge of that. A burnished tangerine glint. Delicate, honeysuckle nose, fruity with plum to the fore. Drink solo and savour.
Adam adds: This barrel came from the same batch that went on to contain three of the best ciders I’ve tasted this year. (Or any year.) As such, I have extra-high expectations, as ludicrous as that is, given this is a completely different drink made from a completely different fruit by a completely different cidery. But them’s the breaks, I’m afraid.
Colour: Gorgeous. Provence rosé.
On the nose: Lovely delicate aromas of pear fruit, elderflowers and honeysuckle meet redcurrant, cranberry and Victoria plum skin. Neither fruits nor florals outweighs the other and are certainly not dominated by oak – just enhanced by a trace of woodiness towards the back. There’s more than a suggestion of rosé wine here. It’s all rather lovely.
In the mouth: Beautifully clean palate, more of that honeysuckle and red berry, then – as if from nowhere – mouth-sucking, chalky tannins by the absolute barrow load. Good lord! Feels totally in contrast to the bright, fresh, delicate fruit, but somehow it works. Lots of pear, with a touch of sweet strawberry. Again the wood character’s very well behaved and balanced – it doesn’t try to dominate at all. I really like this. Crisp, clean, bright and fruity. But wielding an absolute claymore of tannin. Grab something high-protein and you’re laughing.
Foxwhelp Cider aged in an Islay whisky cask 2018 (8.2% – 1.005 Final Gravity) – review
Tom says: There has been a sizeable amount of hoo-ha from the young team in the cider bubble over Foxwhelp and this fascination with the variety is so deserved. It exhibits different characteristics depending on which sport you are growing and where. It has been the foundation of Oliver’s cidermaking for over 20 years. However, it is most definitely not a single varietal cider apple. I am somewhat perplexed by that indulgence but as always, each to their own.
IT IS THE MOST BRILLIANT APPLE FOR MAKING CIDER WITH, but it is by blending with it that you get the best from it. That said, I recall Eleanor Leger from Eden Cider in the USA’s reaction to tasting a 5 year old Foxwhelp in the barrel. She went away to swiftly make a SV [Ed: which we’ve reviewed previously here].
Anyway, here is Foxwhelp, from the very well appointed orchards of Steve and Andrew Layton in Eardisley. The first cider apple pressed every season for us and this was batch 17 of 2018, pumped direct into a first use Islay whisky barrel. A starting SG of 1.061, it certainly was a good year and still so much classic aromatics of piercing citrus with high floral strawberry, much searing fruit in amongst the glorious wood, smoke, acid and char. Time and the barrel has pushed this Foxwhelp towards being the perfect foil for a BBQ smothered pulled pork sandwich.
Adam adds: Firstly, 8.2% abv seems enormous for Foxwhelp. Secondly, don’t think I’ve ever had one in an Islay cask before – very exciting. Thirdly, also don’t think Tom gave his writeup too vigorous an edit, as whole-sentence-long typos seem to have slipped into the first two paragraphs. I’ve helped him a bit with the formatting though – free of charge.
Colour: Crystal clear, pale gold.
On the nose: I mean I am just the perfect customer for this. There’s a lot of that Islay cask – clean smoke, salty coastal tones and a light flutter of germoline – but the Foxwhelp persists alongside it with vivid lemon and lime and crunchy green apple and a waft of strawberry. Just so vibrant and complex and clean and fresh and arresting. This is an intense and focussed nose. And it’s wonderful.
In the mouth: Ok, so the geophysicist did pull “the Foxwhelp face”, but she was back for another sip straight away because this is delicious. And actually, bright as the lemony acidity is, it’s more rounded and – note inverted commas – ‘softer’ than Foxwhelp can often be. Which I’m guessing we chalk up to that huge ripeness and the influence of the cask. That said, we’re still talking ultra-zingy sherbet, white grapefruit and lime, but it’s enmeshed by that gorgeous, ashy, charry, coastal peat-smoke. Foxwhelp plus Islay – who knew? About as intense a double act as you could imagine but fruit and cask are utterly equal to each other. High definition cider with stunning minerality. Loads of green fruit on the finish, too. Those who like such things as distillate-led Lagavulins, Caol Ilas and Inchmoans will get a huge kick. Those who don’t like such things as distillate-led Lagavulins, Caol Ilas and Inchmoans are bad people anyway. I adore this.
Eggleton Styre Cider aged in an Islay whisky cask 2017 (8.2% – 0.995 Final Gravity) – review
Tom says: As with many of the apples and pears we pick, the variety is not always obvious and it can be many years before you can work out exactly what variety they are. The apples from 2 big old trees down in Jane Sale’s beautiful orchards in Catley are a case in point. Finally after a very good “on year” and with the help of the Hogg “Fruit Manual” from 1884, we worked out that these were Eggleton Styre. But what has made it even more exciting is that Polly and Matt from Find & Foster in Devon, have taken on an old orchard and have the list of varieties planted and the Eggleton Styre is one of them. Polly wondered which it was? I sent Polly pictures of the fruit and tree and a description and she is very excited to be able to identify the Eggleton Styre amongst their trees. Pressed on the 25th of October 2017 and pumped directly into an Islay barrel. Eggleton is the name of the village adjacent to Yarkhill, where the Brown Snout apple originated. All surrounding us here in Ocle Pychard.
The resulting cider is fully fermented. Chewy and full in the mouth with hints of vanilla and peach but also some cidery volatile acidity. Try drinking with roast pork.
Adam adds: I’ve never had this as a single variety before, so I’ve no idea what to expect. Fun fact though: “Cidery Volatile Acidity” was the title of a ditched Hammer horror.
Colour: Old brass.
On the nose: Uh oh. Farm funk and animal and vinegar. Oxygen’s done a real number on this I’m afraid – what fruit is left has an overripe, muggy complexion. Soggy stump and apple past its best. Leaf mulch and a little vanilla. As it warms it becomes even heavier going.
In the mouth: There is some fruit freshness clinging on, but you have to wade through a lot of oxidation and sour acetic acid to get to it. Vinegar and wet logs. A little very overripe stone fruit. All the more pronounced toward the very drying finish. Somewhere underneath all this is the feeling that this could have been a very good cider and that Eggleton Styre is a very decent apple. But I’m afraid I’d class this expression as strongly faulty. It’s not for me.
White Beech Cider aged in an Islay whisky cask 2018 (7.3% – 0.995 Final Gravity) – review
Tom says: White Beech is a real veteran apple and a fabulous variety. This is a single, old, hollow tree, hanging on for dear life. Precarious though life is, it gave enough fruit for a single barrel, once again, in 2018. Very small, pale, creamy flecked apples, not dissimilar to Eggleton Styre but smaller.
This stands in the corner of the second orchard at Catley and I am pleased to say that John Worle came to assist in getting some bud wood to see if we can keep this particular tree going. My 2 baby trees are like their parent, hanging in there. Fingers crossed.
This is a properly dry cidery cider and yet another varietal that makes some Herefordshire cider varieties some of the best on this planet for cider making. Maybe this should have been out of the barrel a year ago for more fruit character and less volatile acidity but I hope this will have appeal for the broader minded natural wine drinker? Pass the cheese.
Adam adds: Scary words alert! Though, excitingly, another variety I’ve never tried.
Colour: Hazy burnished gold.
On the nose: That is a big, burly and brusque nose. The Islay cask persists, though the smoke is less intense than in the Foxwhelp. This is more about the oak. Apple bruise and pineapple. Lightly tropical. Must be said though that there is a medium acetic character – that volatility straying into vinegariness – though markedly less than in the Eggleton Styre. The extra oxygen exposure has also muddied the clarity of flavour a bit; particularly noticeable as it warms.
In the mouth: The oak and smoke are more pronounced here – very casky – and the tannins are coarse and searingly dry. High protein essential. There’s a bit of apricot fruit, there are certainly things to like. But that acetic does spoil the party somewhat. Again, it’s less pronounced than in the Eggleton, but it’s interfering significantly and it’s a bit too much for me, I’m afraid, especially as the cider warms in your glass. (The double-edged sword is that, when following the instructions and taking it cold from the fridge, the VA is slightly more hidden but the tannic astringency is accentuated and masks the fruit slightly.) It must be said though that the geophysicist’s reaction on tasting this was an instant “amazing”. Bur her ardour waned as the cider warmed.
Michelin Cider aged in an Islay whisky cask WITH A TWIST (5.8% – 1.000 Final Gravity) – review
Tom says: Michelin gets a bad rap but I think it is a great apple for making “drinking” cider. We always have lots because my old buddy Brain Mcilwrick, whose folks owned the Burley Gate Inn and were one of the first people to plant a Bulmers bush orchard (alternating rows of Dabinett and Michelin), back in the 60’s, next door to the pub.
The pub is no more but I am pleased to say the orchard is (with thanks to Paul and Sandi Evans) and it has been organic for the last 18 years. Just pruning and mowing. 200 metres as the crow flies from the ciderhouse and great fruit. 2019 saw the biggest crop we have ever had from the orchard.
Pressed on November 25th and direct into Islay barrels with a twist. These were the barrels we had used for a Mills Brewing collaboration that has yet to see the light of day. Barleycorn & Appleseed. This cider has clearly got some of those wonderful collab characteristics.
Adam adds: More Islay casks in Tom’s barrel rooms than there are on Islay at this rate. We’ve encountered a single variety Michelin twice previously on Malt – both times from Ross on Wye. I must admit it’s a variety I often find a bit “meh” on its own. But I loved the French Oak Cask, so I’m excited to try this Islay-cask-with-a-twist iteration. And, as a fan of the previous Mills-Oliver’s collabs, I’ll have to look out for this next one.
Colour: Hazy rust.
On the nose: Cider? What? Maybe one that’s taken a wrong turn and ended up in Belgium. This is pure lambic, this is. It’s wild-fermented beer. It’s geueze. And very intensely so. Seriously, there’s not much point with other aroma notes; if you like intense Belgian beers of a certain sort you’ll adore this nose. Simple as that. But it’s the least cider-y cider nose ever. As for specifically Michelin – well I’d not guess it or pick it out as such in a million years.
In the mouth: Hey there are apples in this! I mean they’re buried beneath the beer but, as everything’s a bit less intense than the nose, they’re just about there. I still feel I’m drinking something that started life as grain, but there’s a roundness of texture perhaps; a pithy trace of tannin, a touch of juicy yellow apple reminding me that this has, in fact, been in an orchard and then pressed. Or perhaps it’s the fact that this is still? And hey – I’d totally forgotten that this was also an ex-Islay cask. And I’m now reminded, because there is smoke. A wisp of peat and lanolin before the bittering finish. I mean, look – this is an aberration – it’s the maddest thing you’ll taste all year; more like an unusual beer than a cider and the least Michelin-y Michelin ever bottled. But it’s also, in my opinion, a bit of a must-taste. And, as far as I’m concerned, a pretty substantial guilty pleasure. Seriously – if you’re a lambic fan, I don’t see how you can give this a miss.
Yarlington Mill cider in a Jim Beam bourbon barrel 2019 (6.0% – 0.010 Finished Gravity) – review
Tom says: My favourite cider making variety of apple. The one that enchants everyone’s palate, whether they know it or not. This is a SV from last season, spontaneously fermented in an old Jim Beam barrel that had been used once before. Pressed on the last day of harvest on December 16th with fruit from Robin Salmon, up on the Tenbury/Hereford border where they can grow some very nice fermenting material.
This is still alive and has a way to go but heh, it is a snap shot and this shows clearly what happens when yeasts do not have enough nutrient and have to rely on summer heat to start finishing their ferments. Heat can help when N is low, as I think it helps liberate N from dead cells etc, in the barrel. Not science, just gut feeling.
Anyway, I love unfermented apple sugars, so you can either leave this and see if it moves on or gorge on it now and savour the smoke, the oak, the char, the gentle spice, the vanilla, the apple sugars, the fruit character and the overall charm of this delightful apple. Oh the sweetness of youth!
Adam adds: Cider that’s not finished yet … curiouser and curiouser. Yarlington Mill sits alongside Foxwhelp at the very top of my list of favourite varieties, and ex-bourbon strikes me as a potentially excellent foil for its inherent richness, fatness and spice. High hopes!
Colour: Lightly hazy amber.
On the nose: Another Islay barrel? No … wait … it definitely says “Jim Beam” on the bottle. So where’s all that charry smoke coming from? The barrels? That lignin-rich, spicy Yarlington fruit? Either way there’s loads of smoke. Behind which sits, perhaps unsurprisingly, the fattest, juiciest red apple nose yet. A little cracked black pepper, burnt wood, peanuts and vanilla. Nice fruit, actually, but there’s a lean, nettle greenness there too. Youth, perhaps?
In the mouth: Again that pronounced smoke – charry and woody, almost barbecue-y – but with an additional character that would scream peat at me were it not for the words on the label. Sweeter than the rest, though medium to medium dry in reality, very apple-juice forward but balanced out by that scrape of tannin and more of that green, nettle-y leanness. A touch of and toffee sauce. Mouthfilling and appealing. Being critical, it’s slightly on the simple side for a Tom Oliver oaked Yarlington Mill – less depth and complexity, perhaps. Time? Not fermenting all the way? Both? Either way, I really like it, but I’m not quite leaping from my seat. That said, it’s probably the crowd-pleaser of the lineup.
Aaaand breathe. Well you certainly couldn’t accuse them of being dull. From the bonkers to the brilliant to the brutal there’s not a single cider or perry in this lineup that doesn’t make a statement – and a pretty massive one at that.
Take the Red Pear – delicate, subtle, floral, red-fruited. Butter wouldn’t melt. Yet brandishing a truncheon of tannin. What else could do it but a perry pear? And what a gorgeously wonderful thing it was.
Single variety Foxwhelp from Oliver’s has been top of my cider wish list for ages. Never thought I’d see it, mind you, but my goodness it was worth the wait. If it was sold separately I’d buy a case without hesitation. I’d never have put Foxwhelp and Islay together in my head, but now it’s done I’m addicted. Tom – please make another one for general release. You can take the piss out of me in the writeup as much as you like.
The Yarlington’s pretty lovely, in an easy-pleasing, mildly decadent, juicy fruity way. Suspect it was the geophysicist’s favourite, and I suspect she’ll be in good company when the popular votes come in. I’d have loved to see this one fermented all the way though, and I do think Yarlington generally rewards more time than this has been given when it comes to complexity, depth and ‘completeness’. But I’m picking hairs here out of fussiness, and out of having a very high mental bar for Oliver’s Yarlington Mills to leap.
That Michelin is the barmiest thing I’ll likely taste this year. If you’re a cider purist or you don’t like lambic beer it’ll make you cry and grind your teeth. It is an utterly ridiculous cider but, perhaps because I’m fine with lambic beer, I kind of salute its ridiculous. Mr Ian B, if you are reading this, I recommend you do whatever you can to taste it.
I have to talk about acetic again – sorry, I know I’m boring and predictable – because, to my taste, at the level it expressed itself in the Eggleton Styre and the White Beech I’d class it as a fault. To a slightly lesser extent in the White Beech perhaps, and – as admitted – the geophysicist’s initial reaction was immensely positive – but it’s simply not for me. There will be folk who respond “oh that’s dogmatic and prescriptive”, but there’s an awful lot of pronounced and unpalatable acetic cider on shelves, and I think – no, I know – that the fruit would be cleaner and more expressive and would endear cider to a wider audience without it. It’s not the only fault in cider by any means. But I suspect that, perhaps alongside H2S, it’s the most common. But you’ve heard all this already by now.
Then that Blakeney Red. It’s an absolute marvel really. Not simply that it’s lasted so long, but that its fruit has been impervious to the impact of barrel and – given there was no Angel’s share – very nearly to the impact of oxygen too. It’s a fascinating thing, and I suspect that had it been bottled a year ago I’d be talking about one of the all-time worldie perries. As it is, I’m talking about a good one with an astonishing story.
Trying to lump a general opinion of this lineup when all are so defiantly individual is almost impossible. There’s almost nothing in The Barrel Room series that can be directly compared to other ciders I’ve tried before, and each is startlingly arresting in its own way. (The Yarlington is probably the only one that comes close to ‘mainstream’.) These are big, statement ciders and perries, and I don’t imagine there is a cider drinker in the world – Tom and Felix included – who would genuinely love every single one of them. What’s more, three have at least a trace of what I would call detectable faults, two of them to a pronounced degree; one of those two particularly so.
That being said, in its stated aim to provide wonkish fascination; to highlight the effects of different varieties and barrels and maturation periods – the good, the bad and the ugly – I would describe this series as a definite success. It offers flavours and combinations that you will simply not have encountered before, it offers genuine fascination and real insight and it offers a good few absolute stunners to boot. Approach it expecting to adore everything and you will be disappointed. Approach it as an educational tool and you will come away the wiser in the ways of cider and perry and in the vagaries of variety, time and oak. I, for one, am very glad to have entered the barrel room.
If this is indicative of how Pommelier Club releases will progress, curious-minded drinkers should find it well worth their while subscribing. I look forward to seeing what Felix comes up with next.
Adam’s order of preference. (NB 3, 4 and 5 switched around a lot):
1. Foxwhelp in an Islay cask
2. Red Pear in an Ornellaia cask
3. Yarlington Mill in a Jim Beam cask
4. Michelin in an Islay-then-Mills-collaboration cask
5. Blakeney Red in a Rum cask
6. White Beech in an Islay cask
7. Eggleton Styre in an Islay cask
Many thanks indeed to Tom for letting me recycle his notes and thanks to both Tom and Felix for letting me buy and review this set before general release.