This article is going to be about cider. But before you go any further I want you to read this one, which is about whisky. It is probably the most moving, evocative, memorable and impassioned piece that the now-departed scotchwhisky.com ever published and is, in this reader’s opinion, one of the best pieces that its consistently excellent author has penned. If you can read it without feeling the slightest nibbling at the edges of your soul, then I suspect that you may not be particularly interested in drinks. Or that you work in Diageo’s marketing division.
There is no doubt that ghost, defunct, abandoned distilleries weave a spell of special and distinct allure. Even if we acknowledge that many have become over-hyped and overrated, often to cynical, commercial ends. Port Ellen, Convalmore, Rosebank, Brora; we pay these names particular attention because they are gone, because their liquid is finite, because we always attend more closely to a eulogy than to a lecture.
A natural part of being human is to mourn that which is gone and clutch tightly to that which is rare. These things take on a value beyond their own individual merit. As Angus points out, it becomes less a question of mining for diamonds and more a study in tangible liquid record, warts and all. Every cask of St Magdalene discreetly blended away now represents a missed and irreplaceable opportunity for learning something; a page torn from a history book.
I think it’s time that I moved back to cider and perry. On Monday evening, now enshrined rightly and properly as (Ridiculously Good) perry’s day of worship, I shared a bottle of Ross on Wye’s Flakey Bark. Round, dry, weighty fruit gleaned leanness and texture from a nibble of acidity, firm yet supple tannins and a streak of slatey minerality a mile wide. Nosing yielded a melange of stemmy green vegetation, fleshy pear and earthy petrichor. It was magnificently of its place. Like Angus’s Convalmore, its tendrils will drift across my mind’s palate for a long time to come.
Drinking single variety ciders and perries inevitably sharpens concentration. As with single malts – particularly single casks – one finds oneself looking for the characteristics and identity which might be the variety’s thumbprint and for the little deviations that make this cider, perry, cask unique. They are less about perfect balance and completeness, as a blended cider might be, and more about individuality, quirk, distinction. About divining the essence of that single pear or apple alongside its maker’s signature. This takes on an additional poignancy drinking something like Flakey Bark, knowing that only six fruit-bearing trees remain in existence. If you are lucky enough to drink a bottle of Oliver’s Coppy, that number shrinks to one.
Single variety apples and pears are not like single variety grapes. Many – possibly most – do not manage the double-gold standard of both a balanced centre and a set of profound, complex, satisfyingly intense and broadly accessible flavours. There are perhaps a small handful that achieve both, a handful that is increased if we relax the first standard to permit varieties which may, in some way, be off-balance, but have a striking, distinctive, worthwhile and interesting voice nonetheless. Pears that are perhaps a little on the sharp side for the average palate (or indeed, not acidic enough). Apples whose tannins are too brutally coarse and drying to be a mainstream favourite.
These excesses are part of what gives that apple or pear its character. As a performer in a blend they would not be thought of as “excesses” – they would be thought of as qualities, without which the cider or perry would be, to some degree, diminished. The whole point of bottling them as single varieties is to shine a light on precisely those traits, however marmite, that make it Harry Masters’ Jersey or Tom Putt or Flakey Bark or Thorn. It should expressly not be about manipulating them into the incongruous guise of a crowd-pleasing everyman. A deacidified Foxwhelp would be an aberration. I would go so far as to say it would not count, certainly to my mind, as a Foxwhelp.
As much as I dispute its necessary existence, I understand, to a point, the seeming commercial siren song of ciders and perries which have been sweetened, filtered and diluted. The average consumer thinks of cider as something medium-sweet, something completely clear, something basically light, fruity and unchallenging and something bottled at 5%. Such ciders are generally not for me, but I can understand why they are bottled.
I cannot understand the point of treating a single variety this way.
Firstly, single variety ciders are almost exclusively the preserve of the already-converted. People are not generally drinking Yarlington Mill or Kingston Black in pubs. These are niche, rarefied ciders, generally approached by people who already give a damn, and such people tend to want their ciders served much more au naturel. But secondly, if any ciders, excluding specialist ciders for a moment – the keeves, traditional methods and so forth – have a chance to blast the newcomer with some hitherto undiscovered flavour and experience, it is the single varieties. Imagine the first, laser-keen taste and haunting, pristine aroma of a Foxwhelp. Or the first deep, spicy gulp of Yarlington Mill. The first burly rasp of Harry Masters’ Jersey tannin, the first multi-dimensional sip of a really good Kingston Black. Such things can polarise, sure, but they also have the potential to lift people from their apathy and their seats. Like the focused precision of modern Ardbeg peat or the indulgent wrap of a good Glendronach, the unctuous, rich, decadence of so many great bourbons, the crisp spice of a rye or the inimitable bass rumble of a Springbank, they can stir emotions and leave a tangible imprint in memory. They stick around long after all the medium, inoffensive, reduced ciders have faded into bland sepia.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t keeve or bottle condition or use the champagne method on a single variety. Such things can and do have wonderful, distinctive, varietally-sensitive results, as we have seen more than once in these pages. But when the garden hose and the sugar bowl emerge, when the filter becomes too brutally tight, that individuality of character inevitably begins to slip away. Single varieties, if you are going to make them, should never be anything more or less than themselves. Otherwise I really don’t see the point of them at all.
Not surprisingly, single varieties are what we are putting under the Malt microscope this afternoon. Specifically a Harry Masters’ Jersey and a Chisel Jersey, both 2017s from Rich’s Cider in Somerset. They make up part of the cidery’s “Golden Years” range, varieties selected by cidermaker Martin Rich as the pick of the harvest. Uncovering more about these varieties via the interweb was an even thornier challenge than usual; typing in anything “Jersey” led only to the channel island or it’s newer-fangled American rip-off. To the best of my knowledge, both apples are fairly tannin-heavy bittersweets with their origins in Somerset. Indeed Chisel Jersey is so hefty on tannin that Andrew Williams, who I visited in February, has fermented a few litres of it to use simply as “seasoning” in his blends. Tasted unwarily solo it’d have your jaw off if you weren’t careful. Harry Masters’ Jersey is also no slouch on the astringency front, as we discovered in my article on the single varieties of Ross on Wye. It’s a mainstay of many of the best blends across Herefordshire and the West Country, much loved by virtually every cidermaker I know.
These were both filled into 500ml bottles, weighed in at 6.2% for the Harry Masters’ and 6.7 for the Chisel, and £5 spent at Scrattings will get you the pair.
Rich’s Golden Years Harry Masters’ Jersey 2017 – review
On the nose: Rich by name and rich by nature. Thick, heady smells of baked apple, raisin, sweet pastry and burned caramel. They’re very comforting, crowd-pleasing aromas indeed. Nothing too complicated, but very satisfying.
In the mouth: Medium sweetness on arrival and with more freshness than I’d expect from HMJ. Has acidity been adjusted, I wonder? Flavours continue in that deep, apple strudel vein – sultanas, baked caramel apple. There’s a growl of lightly-drying tannin on the finish that adds structure; keeps things from cloying. A light background stoniness assists in this respect too. This is actually a lovely, rich and rounded medium cider. Very satisfying, as I say.
Rich’s Golden Years Chisel Jersey 2017 – review
On the nose: Much lighter than the HMJ, but very intriguing. There’s a meatiness here that’s almost roast turkey, turkey gravy perhaps. A certain smoky curedness, too. The apple notes behind it are fresh and surprisingly delicate, laced with a lightly medicinal phenolic.
In the mouth: Ooft. That is sweet. Too sweet for me, really, as there isn’t any acidity to balance it, meaning we’re into cloying territory. A shame, because there’s real character and individuality buried underneath that. The meatiness is still there alongside a smoky herbaceousness and the phenolics have intensified – more of that medicine cupboard. There’s a red juiciness to the apple flavours too, a little pineapple and a seam of pronounced pith and tannin really straining against the sweetness to be set loose, but unable to escape their shackles.
The Harry Masters’ Jersey is tasty. Really tasty, in fact, so much so that the geophysicist has demanded I restock in some quantity. It has depth, it has richness, it has balance. It isn’t too sweet. It may not be achingly complex, but there’s a good whack of varietal character on show, even if some of its tannic edge has been sanded off.
The Chisel Jersey, I’m afraid, feels muzzled. Chisel, being more pronounced than HMJ in its astringency and tannin, has clearly required more sweetening to get it to the point at which the tannins might be acceptable to the newcomer. The result, in the absence of any meaningful acidity, is pretty heavy work. I finished my glass, but the geophysicist, whose tooth is far sweeter than mine, couldn’t manage more than a couple of sips. The real shame of it was that the fruit underneath that cloying sweetness is wonderfully clean, entirely fault-free and clearly brimming with life and character that would render it instantly memorable, however much it might polarise.
And this is the sharp end of my issue – an entirely personal and ideological issue, I admit, but one that I feel would resonate with many, if not most, interested cider drinkers. The cidermakers at Rich’s would argue, quite reasonably, that the average consumer doesn’t want massive tannins, that the phenolic characters which so intrigued me might well turn off another palate, that they have taken Chisel Jersey and rendered it, in one sense, more easy-going.
I suppose my stance is that Chisel Jersey is not an easy-going apple and, as a single variety, is not naturally an easy-going cider. There are plenty of ripe, rounded, medium blends that will more than satisfy a customer who is only interested in such things; if you’re after a softer, easier, juicy and manageable single variety there is Michelin or Ashton Brown Jersey or Somerset Redstreak or even Dabinett. I want my Chisel Jersey to sear, to challenge, to hurl its inimitable individuality onto my palate and show me something that I can’t find anywhere else. Channelling A View From the Bridge, I want it to be wholly known, not to settle for half.
There isn’t so much Flakey Bark, Chisel Jersey, Broxwood Foxwhelp, Tremlett’s Bitter in the world that I can simply look elsewhere and easily find another one. If you’re bottling these things as solo acts, why not let them sing entirely as themselves, as nothing else can? I’ll treasure every note, however raucous or wild or unusual. And when I then taste a blend in which that apple or pear plays a role, I’ll treasure that blend the more, too.