I’m not sure where cider would be right now, were it not for Ireland. At the start of the millennium it was staggering and stumbling its ignored way along the bottom shelf of the supermarket until Magners launched an ad campaign in 2006 that changed everything.
Tapping into the outdoorsy, bucolic, somnolent nature of cider they presented themselves as something to serve over ice whilst sitting outside in a beer garden or somebody’s field. The ignored cider’s traditional target market of weathered old Somersetians and denizens of the park bench completely and went after thrusting young fresh-faced millennial types; the Glasto set; the wearers of colourful shorts and sunglasses-on-the-tops-of-their-heads. And, with their big, striking bottles that didn’t fully empty with one over-ice pint and needed carrying back with you for the extra dregs, they snared them by the millions.
They also snared me.
I was definitively not an on-trend, colourful-shorted millennial. I’m pretty sure I wore corduroy trousers back then, and I didn’t buy sunglasses for years, so agonised was I at the thought of the social statement that I might inadvertently make. But I qualified by dint of age and, having discovered Strongbow at a Welsh girls’ school leaver’s ball in the same year Magners hatched their cunning plan, I was ripe for the bagging.
Magners, to be completely honest, was likely one of the defining flavours of my university experience; up there with salt and vinegar crisp baps, single malt, batch-cooked spag bol and miscellaneous club-night ‘cocktails’. It was near-ubiquitous in pub fridges, alongside the incredibly similar-looking Bulmers bottles that followed. I seem to remember Magners being my adolescent preference on the basis of Bulmers being “too sweet”. And yet I’m not sure I ever really thought much about where it came from. I didn’t think of it as specifically “Irish cider”. I simply thought of it as Magners.
Today, although faced down by fruit-flavoured Swedish alcopops, Magners remains a significant presence in UK supermarkets. Yet other Irish ciders are conspicuous by their absence. Looking through the liquid record I have kept since the start of 2018, I have tried only twelve Irish ciders in that time, putting Ireland behind not only England, but France, Spain, Wales, Scotland, the USA and even Sweden in my hit list. I have tried as many from Latvia, albeit they were all from the same cidery. And Austria is only one behind them.
So when Con Traas of Tipperary’s The Apple Farm announced on twitter that he was putting together a mixed case of Irish craft ciders, I jumped at the chance to take advantage. I knew almost nothing about the ciders that would be in the case, although I had tried a smattering from Killahora Orchards and Longueville House previously. So I thought I’d make up for it by trying a randomly picked duo, plus Conn’s own, and scribbling them up here on Malt.
The mixed case cost €48, incidentally, and since all bottles are 500ml I don’t think we’ll get into too much trouble if we assume that everything below costs roughly €4 apiece. Let’s find out if they’re better than the M-word. (If they’re not I shall be mightily hacked off.)
First up was Lámhóg, from The Cider Mill in Slane. It’s part of their “Revival Series”, which is “dedicated to reviving Ireland’s lost cidermaking traditions, creating exciting and innovative ciders of exceptional quality and character.” Lámhóg is a blend of two keeved ciders, matured over two seasons, named after an old Irish drinking vessel and bottled at 6% abv. I’ve seen the Cider Mill, as “Cockagee Cider”, on twitter a fair bit and heard rather good things about them, so I was particularly looking forward to trying this.
Lámhóg Maker’s Reserve – review
Colour: Bright copper.
On the nose: That’s a lovely, savoury, robust bittersweet aroma. Full of rust and leather and cinnamon spice and clove beside burly red apple. There’s a smoky woodiness here too – it’s one of those ciders that puts you straight into the last shivers of autumn.
In the mouth: Chok-full of grippy, lightly-astringent, muscular tannin. Spiced apple and oak cabinet – loads of woody, lignin-led spice. There’s an almost medicinal phenolic here. I’m somewhere between Normandy’s tannin standard-bearers of Cotentin AOC and the apples of the west country that end “Jersey” or “Bitter”. On reflection, this sits closer to the Normans, which given it’s a keeve isn’t really a surprise. Just the lightest bit of sweetness though, which tannins and body do much to cover. This is invigorating, bold, flavour-packed cider that really wants you to drink it with a steak.
Next up was Cork’s Killahora Orchards. This was a brand I had tried before, but only at the Cider Salon last year. They seem to be one of the spearheads of Ireland’s fine cider movement; their Poiré is exceptional and I suspect that our Phil would be interested in their Midleton cask-aged cider. The bottle in my mixed case today is their Johnny Fall Down Late Apples 2017, bottled at 5.5% abv. It’s part of a pairing designed to show the difference between early varieties – generally tangier, lighter-flavoured – and late varieties, which have more tannin and overt ripeness. But which varieties were actually used, I couldn’t tell you.
Johnny Fall Down Late Apples 2017 – review
On the nose: Lots of spices here: clove, nutmeg, vanilla – even cumin. A little woodsmoke. But these are all rather lifted in tone – it’s not so much about deep, dark notes. Very clean, showing pink grapefruit and blood orange citrus for fruit.
In the mouth: Medium arrival, sweetness-wise, and here the fruit is to the fore, buoyed by those sugars. Still the blood orange, but with a touch of riper apricot and more vanilla. What these late apples were I’ve no idea, but there’s a great deal of flavour on show that makes me think of Dabinett. Impressively clean, with good body and intensity, given the strength. A little caramel apple toward the finish. A cider that would convert the uninitiated, no problem.
And finally, Con’s own Medium Dry. It’s worth reading his product page, where he talks in detail about the difficulties facing the Irish craft cider industry, most of which mirror our own across the water. His is made entirely from Irish apples “without the routine addition of either water or sugar”. Which sounds pretty fair to me. Like the Johnny Fall Down it weighs in at a rather modest 5.5% abv.
Con’s Irish Cider Medium Dry – review
On the nose: A little on the oxidative side to begin with. Walnut and metal polish. There are some nice citrus and green apple notes behind that though. Pretty simple, but definitely a bright cider.
In the mouth: Not much change here, though perhaps a little more depth. It’s medium, rather than medium-dry, to my taste, with a little brown sugar and caramel, and a reddening of the apple notes. The nutty oxidative tones remain, but they don’t overwhelm and there’s still some freshness to be found here. Simple, reasonable fare.
A good mixed bag, stylistically as well as in quality. Happily, all are better than Magners, so that’s the main thing. The geophysicist liked all three, with her favourite being Johnny Fall Down. I was less sold on Con’s myself (though not so much that I wouldn’t buy from the cidery again) but the other two were excellent. The Lámhóg was the star, in my book; wonderful depth and complexity, and tremendous value for money. It would sit comfortably with really good Cotentin cidre, and would rank very highly by comparison with most of our own 500ml bottles in England. If Scrattings sold it I would buy a lot.
Exciting things clearly happening in the Irish cider scene. I look forward to further investigation very soon.