The way people talk about alcohol in cider makes my gizzard curdle. Intelligent, sensible, broadsheet-savvy people who know how to operate a microwave and which way round to put their trousers on seem to swallow their brain whenever they look at a cider’s abv.
A friend of mine, a person who describes themselves as a cider drinker and whose wine drinking tendencies lean in the direction of Australia’s more tub-thumping reds, once shivered in horror at the sight of a Ross on Wye bottling at seven-or-so percent. And some cretin or other on twitter – I forget who, there are so many of them – announced that anything over six and a half was ludicrous and far too strong. This tweet interrupted their usual fare, incidentally, which is cask-strength-or-near-as-damnit whisky.
This blindness of common sense, of clarity of thought, is buttressed by four manky, rotting pillars. The first is simply that ninety-five percent of the British public believe cider’s horizons to be largely confined to the handful of brands they see in all brewery-owned and most independent pubs. All of which skulk around 4.5-5% abv. The second is that brown-bag filth and turbo-charged gutrot like White Lightning naturally gives all higher-strength ciders a grim and grotty press. Pillar number three is the widely held belief – clung to even by some cider enthusiasts – that the pint pot is the only proper glass from which to chug a cider. And the final tenet is simply that education around real cider is so woefully sparse.
Subject to variances in variety and climatic conditions, apples fermented to dryness will naturally land anywhere between a smidge over five per cent at the low end, and eight or so at the top end. (I gather that some orchards in the hotter crannies of Australia and the US can top out a little higher.) So if you want to drink cider in its most natural, unvarnished state, those are the sort of numbers you’re working with.
But a high number, in and of itself, doesn’t confirm a cider to be “natural”. It’s possible – widely practiced, in fact, to zonk up your alcohol level artificially through a process known as chaptalisation. Invented by and named after a Napoleonic minister a couple of hundred years ago, chaptalisation was first used to increase the alcohol levels in thin, weedy wines from a bad vintage. It’s now fairly strictly controlled by the European Union, and seldom needed in warmer regions of the winemaking world, but its use in cider is far less discussed and understood.
The idea, in brief, is that you add extra sugar to your unfermented apple juice. This raises the potential alcohol, meaning you can ferment to a higher proof. So far so simple, but it’s what you then do with your chaptalisation that causes the most gnashing of online teeth.
Personally, and I’m prepared for a bit of backlash here, I can live with a little chaptalisation. Some brands simply want their products to be a consistent, higher percentage. So they adjust their sugars ever so slightly in a cooler vintage to make sure their cider lands at that number. As long as the cider still tastes good I can live with that.
Where I start to get a bit cynical is when the other sort of chaptalisation rears its head. You see some brands, mainly the much bigger ones, will add absolutely loads of sugar to their cider – such that it will ferment to something in the region of fifteen per cent abv or so. Of course no mainstream customer is interested in a cider of that percentage, so this is where the garden hose comes out and the cider is diluted down to a much more palatable five per cent or so. This, as you can imagine, has the effect of not only watering down the character considerably, but also making their main, expensive, ingredient – the apples – go a lot further than they would have done under normal circumstances.
This doesn’t mean that the cider tastes “bad” per se. A prominent chaptaliser is Weston’s, and I drink their ciders fairly often when I’m out at a pub with friends. They’re far better than Bulmer’s and they’re what’s generally available. But it does mean that the ciders taste thinner, blander. Less intense and complex than they could have done, had they been presented au naturel. My suspicions are that this is another in a list of many reasons for a predisposition towards extra sweetness, sugar being rather handy at increasing the perception of flavour and body when there isn’t terribly much there to begin with.
But returning to higher strength ciders more broadly: plainly it is absurd to suggest that they are “too strong” at six per cent plus when even a miserably, flavourless bottle of Pinot Grigio clocks in at at least eleven. The answer, as it does with wine, as it does with craft beer, lies in the way we are drinking it. Personally I don’t want a pint glass full of something at seven and a half. That seems like a challenge, rather than something to enjoy. Even before we get into such drink-poncery as the organoleptic qualities of alternative glassware.
I understand the comfort and satisfaction of having something in a pint glass, and I’m certainly not suggesting that cider be served only in Riedel. But it seems fairly obvious to me that better, more natural ciders would be enjoyed more often by more people if they were served in smaller measures and different glassware. There’s something psychological to a nice glass, in any case. It makes you take your time and pay attention to what you’re drinking. Yes, perhaps they’re something of a pretentiousness-poker, but in honesty, great cider could do with a little more pretention. If nothing else, someone has taken the time and trouble to make something as well as they are able. It deserves to be served and savoured to its fullest possible effect.
As with so many things, we really can’t expect pubs to take the lead on this. Most of them actively turn away full-strength cider, after all, and the ones who don’t seldom have any interest in serving it at its best. So my plea du jour is that you try it yourself at home. Indulge your inner snob. Find yourself a proper, higher-strength cider and a decent glass with a stem. Pour your cider like wine, swirl it, sniff it, show it some love. I guarantee if you take the time you’ll get more out of it than you expected, and you’ll enjoy, you’ll appreciate, your cider and its craft that little bit more.
If you happen to be in Ireland, perhaps you could pick the subject of today’s review. Mór comes from Longueville House, in County Cork. It’s the second of their two ciders, and due to a punchy eight per cent abv it has been given a name that translates from Gaelic as “big”. A 500 ml bottle will set you back €5 on their website, which feels more than reasonable value.
Longueville make it from that ever-reliable double act of Dabinett and Michelin apples, previously seen in these pages teaming up for Ross on Wye Raison d’Être and looming large in Little Pomona’s Cryo-Conditioned and Bignose & Beardy’s Spartan. So we have rather formidable context. Let’s see how the Irish get on.
Indeed today we’re keeping our spirits readers happy too, because Longueville House also distil their cider into apple brandy and today we have a sample of their 2012, aged four years in French oak. The casks, we learn, formerly held wine and, following their spell looking after the brandy, are refilled with Mór for a year before the cider is bottled. So our two drinks today should share some woody DNA.
Before we crack on, the brandy’s strength is worth an asterisk. It’s bottled at forty per cent, the infamous minimum for whisky, and one that has been railed about fairly often on Malt and elsewhere. It’s a fairly common occurrence for cider brandies, including high-end Calvados, to be bottled at what is a relatively low, mewling strength for a spirit. When I toured the excellent Somerset Cider Brandy Co and asked Matilda Temperley whether she’d consider doing a higher strength bottling she practically suppressed a roll of the eyes and said “whisky drinkers always ask that”. Maybe so … but it doesn’t mean we’re wrong. It’s easy for spirit nerds to forget that forty per cent still represents an intimidating strength to the average drinker, but I dare say that if Somerset Cider Brandy Co or Longueville House bottled a small run – perhaps just a couple of barrels – at its undiluted best, they’d find a ready market for it. Perhaps they could call that “Mór” as well. Just a thought.
The brandy in our glass today is also made from Dabinett and Michelin and “contains no artificial sweeteners, additives, colourings or preservatives”. A bottle weighs in at €39 from their website.
For an extra opinion I’ve invited a cider celebrity guest to chip in with his two cents as well. James Finch is probably cider’s most prominent UK blogger, being responsible for his own site, The Cider Critic (famous for the quality of its guest contributors) as well as most of the content on Crafty Nectar. He’s also ventured into the production world, having set up his own cidery, Chapel Sider. We’ll put that under the Malt knife at some point in the future, no doubt; in the meantime, welcome James, let’s see what we think of Longueville House.
Longueville House Mór – Adam’s review
Colour: Rich amber.
On the nose: Intensely juicy, this one, with impressive depth. The oak’s not far away; a spicy, lignin-led character adding cloves and cedar to the rich, developed apple. Mainly about that ripe juiciness though – it’s incredibly approachable and fulsome, all things considered. Just a light trace of acetic varnish amidst the top notes.
In the mouth: Somehow this lands with more sweetness than I’d expect, which heightens the juiciness but overshadows complexity ever so slightly. The fizz complements the texture and strength well – it lifts, rather than obstructs. More brown sugar, clove and baking spice, but this is incredibly apple forward – baked apple compote and really good apple juice. The depth and richness perfectly match the strength. You could pour this for anyone in the world – it’s incredibly easy-drinking for the proof. A tiny – and I do mean tiny – touch of that varnish still. Otherwise a big ripe, moreish, generous glug.
Colour: Pure gold with a very light carbonation.
On the nose: oak barrels and apricots, followed by spiced apple, then a very slight acetic note on the end.
In the mouth: Initial taste is juicy red apples, but then the rest of the palate is dominated by sweetness with a hint of vanilla and then that little acetic acid I got on the nose. It may be me being a bit more attuned to those notes, I’m not sure if everyone would pick up on it.
Conclusions: For me it’s a little sweet, or at least I perceive it to be. I happily finish the bottle, but the star for me is what went in the barrels first.
Longueville House Irish Apple Brandy 2012 – Adam’s review
On the nose: Given this is just 40% there’s nothing shy or retiring about these aromas. They billow languorously from the glass with the same deep, ripe baked apple juiciness as the Mór. Remarkably similar, in fact, except that here – as you’d expect – the oaky spices are on fuller song. Nutmeg, clove and cinnamon stick. Polished oak, saddle leather. Sweeter tones of Battenburg. Super depth, complexity and development for just four years, I have to say.
In the mouth: Here the dilution is a little clearer – the texture’s just a smidge broken up; a smidge thin. But still that deep, alluring tandem of baked apple – apple pie, really – and woody, Christmassy spice ride along handsomely together. This is clearly good, characterful spirit from very decent ingredients put into high-quality, assertive casks. Such a shame about all that dilution. A touch of vanilla and Eve’s Pudding intertwangle with ginger biscuits on the finish – again cut just slightly short by the proof. A little rawness of spirit – just a touch – belies the whippersnapper age here. But I really like this – a surprising amount.
Colour: Dark caramel or light toffee.
On the nose: There’s an initial fire in my nostrils from my brandy glass, but that is followed by nutty, spicy toffee apple.
In the mouth: It’s very smooth, a touch of heat is short-lived and opens up into wood and vanilla, which gives an illusion of sweetness.
Conclusions: This is possibly my favourite cider brandy, having tried many over the years. The balance of warmth and rich flavours make it the perfect spirit to end the evening with.
The geophysicist absolutely adored the Mór, and was greatly put out when I told her I didn’t think it’s on sale in the UK. I very much liked it too – I can’t see why anyone wouldn’t. It’s the cider equivalent to bourbon or good Aussie Shiraz – booming flavours and easy, friendly, accessible charm. A trace of acetic, yes (though far less than in many an English cider), perhaps a bit on the sweet side and certainly not as complex as something like Raison d’Être or Cryo-Conditioned. But actually I reckon I’d be more confident pouring this one to many cider newcomers without knowing their tastes beforehand. And I’d have no hesitation in giving it to a long-toothed ciderista either. Absolutely buy a bottle if you can.
Honestly? Before tasting it, I thought the spirit would be a bit meh. As so many 40%, four-year-old spirits are, in the context of much of what we taste here on Malt. So I was profoundly surprised and impressed by the depth, richness and intensity on show. It’s another that’s a real, approachable, easy-pleaser. There’s just a wonderful come-hither, inclusive aspect to its palette of aromas and flavours. I’d cheerfully pour it to novice and wonk alike, confident it would be enjoyed. If I was scoring it I reckon I’d be either a 6 or a 7, both of which are very decent marks here on Malt (see translations of our our scoring bands here) especially at this age, proof and price point. Just imagine how good a cask strength bottling might be …
So yes, whilst I’d always advocate sipping in moderation, and certainly don’t want to seem as though I just want all our booze numbers to go up, I think it’s important that we talk about the difference that full strength – proper strength, not fudged strength – can make to the quality of the drink and experience. That we aim, perhaps, to drink less, but to drink Mór.
Both the cider and the brandy were given to Malt by Longueville House. But such things never affect our writeups. Possibly just our politeness. We also helped ourselves to a couple of photographs.
Adam has finally worn me down and sold me on craft cider. Does any Australian reader know if cider to this level of craft is available here?
Glad you’ve been worn down!
Alas I’ve only tried a couple of Australian craft ciders, but https://www.realciderreviews.com/ is wonderful on them. I gather that Tasmania in general and Spreyton Cider in particular are the places to go.
Best wishes and thanks for reading (and being worn down)
Matilda Temperley whether she’d consider doing a higher strength bottling she practically suppressed a roll of the eyes and said “whisky drinkers always ask that”.
I’ve had a few 40% French brandy from smaller houses. They don’t have the typical light body and flavor the 40% abv bottled mass marketed spirits have. I really think it’s something to do with the incremental dilution which happens over years. Any idea if Longeuville practices this?
I’m not sure whether they dilute incrementally. Certainly this has far more flavour than any comparatively-priced Calvados I can remember offhand (I may have tried fewer than you.)
I take your point about incremental dilution, but I do wish they wouldn’t (almost) all insist on carrying on with increments until 40%. It breaks up the oils, drowns most of the phenols and misses out on the spirit’s best light. I think even if they bottled a Longueville House at 50% it’d utterly smash most of the comparatively-priced competition. They’ve clearly taken time to make really good spirit, they’re obviously using tremendous casks and I’d just love to taste it in fuller form.
Hey ho. Thanks as ever for reading and commenting.
I’ve heard that brandy is more or is as expensive as the golden boy whisky because distilling yields less of it. Like a 1000L fermentation mash will result in more whisky than it will brandy. Have you tried looking into this? It may shed light to why things are a certain way in brandy.
Hi there and thank your comments & reviews.
FYI Our Apple Brandy is cut with our own well water.
Great write up, as usual. I always learn a shit ton. Never heard of chaptalisation, I didnt know it was so prevalent, it’s really interesting hearing this sort of thing. Anything for a higher yield it seems!
Through osmosis reading your reviews, I think I’m going to have to get into this cider malarkey. A selection of craft ciders is on the cards for me, and soon too. After I explore some sake, which is somewhere in the post.
Thanks very much for reading and taking the time to comment and clarify.