“Balance”, or at least their conception of it, is the favourite word of 90% of the craft cidermakers I chat to.
I’m pretty sure I know what they mean by the word. They’re talking about safety. About ease of drinking, approachability, friendliness. I dare say it’s a good part of the reasoning behind the enormous preponderance of “medium” on shelves – this terror that the consumer will recoil from anything with a whiff of “dry” to it. I would imagine it’s also – quite contrary to the tastes of the wonkish consumer, incidentally – why makers often shy away from generous helpings of apples high in tannin or acidity. They’re after something that sits in the middle. Not too strong, not too dry, not too sharp, not too tannic. Their key demographic, basically, is Goldilocks.
Islay casks do not sit easily within this safe and fluffy intersection of cider’s Venn Diagram. 90% of our readers will need no introduction whatsoever to Islay casks, but for those of our readers who only drop in on Saturday, a brief précis: Islay is an island off the west coast of Scotland famous, predominantly, for birds and whisky. The nine working distilleries on the island are responsible, between them, for a vast array of malt whisky styles, but the word with which Islay is generally synonymous is “peat”. Not all the Islay distilleries release exclusively peated whisky and not all peated whisky comes from Islay. But “peated” is, without question, the style that has made Islay so slobbered over by the whiskerati.
Without opening an interminable discussion on the albeit manifold nuances of peat, the chiefest reason for its popularity is that it tends to make a statement. Peated whiskies are seldom shrinking violets and in a world increasingly interested in intense flavours, distilleries have, over the last couple of decades, either added peated expressions to their range or markedly increased the peat phenols per million of their malt. Octomore, the world’s most heavily peated whisky, famously began life as a bit of a pub joke and is now much beloved of folk who enjoy having their palates expensively cudgelled. (Whose ranks, from time to time, include me.)
All this peatiness, as you would expect, leaves its mark on the cask in which the whisky is contained. And it has become increasingly fashionable for distilleries to achieve a layer of peatiness in their whisky by housing it in a cask that formerly held a peaty occupant, rather than by peating their malt itself. I must admit, this is a style of which I’ve yet to be convinced; I’ve reviewed a couple such whiskies here on Malt before – recently from Bimber and The Cotswolds, and going back a little further from Ardmore – and their peated notes have always had a little something out of kilter. But cider, thus far, has been another question.
On the surface, the notion of cider in peaty ex-whisky casks seems bizarre and a little off-putting. Smoky, salty, coastal, phenolic, occasionally medicinal peat with the ripe, fresh juiciness of apples? But the proof is in the tasting, and the tasting is frequently excellent. Ross on Wye’s Mike Johnson is a great fan of peated whisky and several of their expressions – notably Raison d’Être, feature components which have spent time in such casks. One of my favourite ciders of the year, the 2018 Foxwhelp from Oliver’s, had been in an Islay cask with phenomenal results; the smoke coiling beautifully around the electric brilliance and intense spine of the apple.
But striking that balance remains a finicky business. A cider’s personality should be driven by its fruit; ameliorated by oak rather than dominated by it. And when it comes to peated whisky casks, that’s easier said than done. Two cideries which have picked up the gauntlet are Caledonian Cider Co and Ascension.
Caledonian we have met before on a couple of occasions; their Strange Bru featured in my Essential Case, and we covered their excellent North and South and Craobh Lan at the end of June. Caledonian’s maker, Ryan, is well placed to play around with whisky casks, given that his day job is for Glen Ord distillery, owned by whisky and spirits behemoth Diageo. I tried his 2018 Islay Cask last year and would likely have included it in my Essential Case ahead of the Strange Bru, had it not all sold out long beforehand.
When I asked Ryan about his Islay Cask, “balance” reared its head once again. “My maker’s instinct is to go for balance, which my palate seems to interpret as only peripheral smoke. Personally I don’t find tannins and peat go well, sweet and peat seems wrong, acid-led seems kind of too thin, aromatics are often just dominated … it really is a nightmare. Islay Cask for me is all about compromise.”
This compromise manifests itself in a blend of 60% Browns and 40% Dabinett. Dry and virtually still (“again, I struggle with bubbles and smoke”, says Ryan) it’s his attempt to arrive at that happy confluence of body, acidity and peat. As to the distillery, for professional reasons he’s remained tight-lipped, though you’d guess it was from one of Diageo’s Islay pair: Caol Ila and Lagavulin. (I suppose it could technically be from Port Ellen, but that would seem the most distant of outside chances.) At the time of writing bottles are available at Scrattings for £10 or from BeerZoo for £9. They’re also down to their last few at Fram Ferment.
Ascension are a new cidery to Malt, and based right at the other end of the UK, on the Sussex coast. Indeed although they’ve been going for a decade now, they’re virtually a new cidery to me entirely, with my only exposure coming in the shape of their collaboration with Burning Sky Brewery. Their range stretches across a bewildering array of ciders both apple-only and heavily-adjuncted, available in cans, bottles and bag in box. But today we’re concerned with their new venture: the Wild Wood Series.
Ascension’s website describes this as “our idea of minimum intervention cider”. Pressed apple juice pumped directly into casks, fermented to dryness with wild yeasts and then bottled directly from the barrel. “A series that we’ve dreamed of starting from day one”, say Ascension, and their first releases are two batches from Laphroaig Casks. Laphroaig is probably Islay’s most famous distillery, and not one whose casks you’d typically turn to in search of balance. It’s a distillery which tends to divide opinion among modern enthusiasts, having seen a significant change to the character of its spirit over the last few decades. Critics suggest that the idiosyncrasies of Laphroaig have been rather swallowed in an effort to up the “peatiness” and that modern bottlings have often become a little one note. But there’s no doubting that its used barrels are capable of imparting significant flavour, and most of the peated-casks whiskies I’ve tried have gone to Laphroaig for their wood. Returning to Ascension, I’m tasting Batch #2 today, which I bought at Middle Farm in Sussex for about £8. The pair of both Batch #1 and #2 is available directly from the cidery’s website for £18.
Before I taste them, it’s worth noting that neither cidery published the identity of the apples they used, either on the label or in the copy on their websites. I understand entirely that “Islay Cask” or “Laphroaig Cask” are likely bigger knee-jerkers to a certain market, but it seems a shame that the fruit itself – the primary ingredient – is left underdiscussed. Particularly since Ryan was so forthcoming with useful information when I approached him personally. Just a thought.
Caledonian Cider Co Islay Cask 2019 – review
Colour: Hazy pale Gold.
On the nose: The label says “peat reek”, but what jumps out at me first is woodiness of an old, untreated, almost musty character. There’s also the light but tell-tale cardboardiness of TCA – it’s ever so slight, but it’s there. Mingling with that are pleasant notes of vanilla and apple skins and peach skin and heather.
In the mouth: Similar story. The smoke’s certainly not too intense and what tannin there is presents as a trace only. Peat increases on the finish with char and chopped nuts. There’s high-toned green apple, vanilla and lemon in the foreground. It’s certainly not overwhelmed by any one thing, but that TCA taint does linger with its slightly cardboardy, musty presence. Not to excess, but dulling it all slightly.
Ascension Wild Wood Laphroaig Cask #2 – review
Colour: Hazy peach.
On the nose: Cor. There’s definitely some peat in there. Expressing in a very similar way to the peat in the Oliver’s Foxwhelp actually – that high-noted ash, burned wood and light, Laphroaig-y germoline. The apples certainly aren’t swamped though, bright lemons and softer, juicy pears with a little ripe yellow plum too. They’re all super-fresh. It’s youthful stuff. Everything’s bound by a green seam of pine. It’s very complex.
In the mouth: Smoke and tannin (pithy, rather than gripping) smash into each other straight from the off. It’s only medium-bodied, so those textural elements aren’t restrained by voluptuousness – it’s on the astringent side. Add food! Nonetheless, it’s very tasty with crispness of green apple and grapefruit pith scored through by char. Recommended.
There are certainly lovely touches to the Caledonian, and thought has clearly gone into balancing fruit and smoke. Nothing overwhelms; both elements are given room to express themselves. That being said, to my taste it’s not my favourite of Ryan’s ciders, nor quite in the same league as the 2018. TCA isn’t enormously common in ciders, and the geophysicist didn’t mind it too much, but perhaps because of my wine background it rather stood out to me and I struggled to take my mind off it. It’s certainly not pronounced, but it does take the edge off what is otherwise a good cider.
The Ascension is a lot of fun. The unanimous favourite on the night, with big smoke but – crucially – big fruit flavours to go with it. To my taste it could have done with either more body, a touch more acidity or the lift of bottle conditioning on the palate to lift it into “epic” territory, but it remains a very good cider which I would thoroughly recommend and will certainly buy again. I look forward to what the rest of the Wild Wood Series holds.