Once upon a time I lived in Inverness, and I adored it. Apart from university which is, at best, a dress rehearsal, it was my first real-life move away from the corner of Liverpool’s nature reserve in which I had lived all my life. And although I only spent a bare seven months there before shuffling down the A9 for a grim-fated further half-year in Dundee, Inverness remains the only place in the world, beside the house in which I grew up, which thumps in my soul with the ineffable knell of homecoming when I return.
I lived in a guest house ten minutes’ walk from Culloden, one of the best-preserved and most tangibly poignant battlefields in Britain. My fifty minute trudge to work overlooked firth and mountain and pine forest and the overlooked, graffitied, half-embarrassed grave of King Duncan, who Shakespeare had assassinated as an old man by midnight, but who was really cut down as a young man in sunlit battle. My Inverness months were a time of days off wandering the hills around Loch Ness, getting lost on purpose and re-finding my way in the dark. They were a time for delving into flights of single malt at Fiddlers in Drumnadrochit, for hours rummaging in the book dust and fire-fumes at Leakey’s, for hauling the innards inexpertly from mallards my manager’s brother had shot, for long evenings of Australian wine with Australian housemates, for morning dashes east to Speyside or north to the distilleries of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. The summers of my childhood were spent on Arran, but when, in pre-locked-down times, I looked out of the office window, it would be to the Great Glen, the Black Isle and Inverness that my mind’s eye scampered.
One thing that I don’t miss is the cider.
I can’t even remember what I drank in pubs those days, so I dare say it was Strongbow. Several places didn’t stock cider at all; I didn’t even come across Scotland’s pretty mealy-mouthed Thistly Cross until I made the move to Dundee. But had I stayed in Inverness for just a year or two longer I would have had Caledonian Cider.
Caledonian Cider was founded and is run by Ryan Sealey, a cidermaker who moved up to Conon Bridge to make whisky for Glen Ord. Caledonian is his bit on the side; a pet project labour-of-love he runs out of a shed. And, to my taste, he makes some of the best, most complex and most interesting cider you’ll find in the British Isles.
I came across them for the first time last year, and was so won over by his Strange Bru that it made its way into my “Essential Ciders” case, published on Malt back in January. I’ve since tried several more and, but for one bottle that seemed to have a little TCA taint, I’ve loved every one. I was thrilled when Ryan opened up online sales on the Caledonian website, and bitterly disappointed when he was so badly let down by delivery companies damaging 30% of his parcels that he has had to shut off couriered parcels again. Fortunately, for those of us not lucky enough to live within local delivery limits, his wares are now available through Scrattings and Crafty Nectar.
Inverness, you may be thinking, is something of an odd place to find a cidermaker. Lack of longstanding cider culture notwithstanding, it sits some 499 miles from Hereford (as Google Maps tracks it), almost all of those miles due north. (Maybe The Proclaimers’ song is secretly about doing a cheeky cider run?) Apples, being a crop and therefore subject to the vicissitudes of environment in general and terroir in particular, present significantly differently across this distance and face significantly different growing and ripening challenges. (As a side note, isn’t it a shame that whisky isn’t made from a crop and is thus unable to similarly reflect its growing environment … ?)
*Pause, whilst worms are returned to can and Adam is slapped hard on the wrist by editors.*
In 2019, the cruel hand of climate struck Ryan a somewhat devastating blow. Overnight temperatures in the main orchards Ryan uses dipped below zero on the 7th, 12th and 29th of May, devastating the fruit before it had even really begun to grow from blossom. Thankfully, in 2020, those conditions haven’t repeated themselves, but it meant that Ryan was unable to make his usual Strange Bru, Local Rocket or North Shore, not wishing to dilute the character or integrity of his Highland-grown ciders.
Instead he scratched his head and came up with a new pair, both of which have found their way under our microscope today.
The first, North and South, should be seen as a collaboration process. Ryan did some digging around the West Country and was put in touch with orchardist Ross Mangles, based near the Somerset/Devon border. He bought a mixture of Dabinett and Yarlington Mill apples, pressed them in Conon Bridge and keeved them in ex-whisky casks from Speyside and the Highlands (easier to get hold of when you work for a Diageo distillery). Keeving is actually ideally suited to the Highlands, being dependent on slow fermentations in low temperatures. After months of racking and tasting, he blended the resultant cider with dry cider made from locally grown sharp and sweet culinary varieties before sending the whole lot to Stirling for carbonation and bottling. 330ml costs £2.90 from Scrattings or eight for £20 from the cidery itself.
Craobh Làn (“full tree”) is a very different prospect. Once again, apples are a blend of Highland and West Country (in this instance the West Country fruit came from the Devon Orchards of Sampford Courtenay) but in this instance all are Dabinett. We’ve met the ubiquitous Dabinett several times before, so needn’t dwell too long on its properties – fleshy, medium-tannin, low acidity, generally fairly ripe orange-and-vanilla fruit. After pressing, Ryan pumped the juice into a plastic barrel and added in the pulp that had been left behind post-pressing. It’s a technique inspired by the on-skin fermentation of red wine, and one that Ryan had used before, but only for small components of larger blends. In Ryan’s own words: “It always results in a cider with huge amounts of high, volatile apple notes which if you don’t time it right separating the cider from the pulp can easily transform in a nail varnish kind of thing, you need to be even more attentive with the on pulp fermentations then the others. So when it seemed about right (just touch after the acetaldehyde becomes perceivable) I racked it across into a fresh barrel.”
The unusualness didn’t end there. Into this new barrel Ryan added a few kilograms of winter wood pruned from the apple trees in his orchard, leaving it in the cider for a month before re-racking into a neutral oak cask and finally botting it “pet-nat” at a specific gravity of 1.006. (Meaning that it is now dry, but rather more “nat” than “pet”. Don’t expect much in the way of bubbliness). 750 ml will set you back one crisp brown note, irrespective of whether you use the normal, correct ones, or the weird pick-n-mix Monopoly tenners beloved north of the border.
I must admit that there were certain details of which I had no idea when I bought and tasted these ciders. I didn’t know that the North and South had been in oak and I didn’t know that the Craobh Làn was a single variety Dabinett. (Incidentally, I think Ryan may be missing a trick not mentioning that on his website.) So I went into the tasting glass, if not blind, then at least only partially-sighted. And here is what I found.
Caledonian Cider North and South – review
Colour: Burnished Gold.
On the nose: That deep apple juice aroma so indicative of a good keeve is here, but it’s more complex than that. Vanilla, black pepper and forest floor. Twiggy woodiness and coconut shell. It’s a lovely balance of sweet and savoury, really.
In the mouth: Even bigger on the palate; the flavours equal to the mouthfilling mousse. Green apple skins and juice from the culinaries beside bright oranges from the Somerset fruit. Pineapple chunks, white flowers, ginger honey and heather beside vanilla oak, drifting toward peanut and just the teensiest far-distant trace of peat on the long finish. Medium, wonderfully complex and showing off the best of both of its apple camps.
Caledonian Cider Craobh Làn – review
Colour: Orangey copper.
On the nose: I don’t think it’s simply suggestion – there is a pronounced leafiness here. One of those ciders that smells of the outdoors; deciduous woods and earth. Almonds, vanilla sponge and crystallised orange rind; oak cask, dunnage and huge – I mean huge – ripe apple. That is a generous and indulgent nose.
In the mouth: Follows through onto the palate; vanilla, coconut, manuka honey and that utterly enormous, clean, ripe apple. More marzipan too. This is so fruity that it presents as almost off-dry, with just a flutter of pétillance – it’s all but still. A massive orange character wraps around everything – an explosion of fruit really, laced with plush, velvety tannin and just a whisper of pith. This is a huge, fat, ripe gulp of summer in a glass. Probably the least Invernesian drink ever.
North and South is now entrenched as our staple “session” cider; for the price you’ll be hard-pushed to find anything more complex and satisfying from anywhere. Wasn’t sure whether I was barking up the wrong tree with the peat, it was so minimal, so I asked Ryan and – yes – a single, well-used ex-Lagavulin cask was part of the barrel makeup. Just another little strand of complexity in its deeply alluring tapestry.
Craobh Làn is an absolute fruit bomb. I don’t know how much the on-pulp fermentation and in-cask branches added to the aromas and flavours, but wonderful things have clearly taken place somehow or other. Dabinett, as I have said before, can often be a somewhat nice-but-dull apple, but this is the second truly gorgeous single variety Dabinett I have reviewed on Malt in less than a month. Don’t let it age; drink it young and fresh and fruity and exuberant. But do make sure you drink it.
On this evidence, on top of previous work, Caledonian Cider Company sits comfortably in the top ten cideries in the UK and the top one cideries in Scotland. It really has been too long since my last visit to Inverness.