One juice to rule them all …
The first thing you ought to know is that I love blind tastings. Of course I do – what fun! Liquid detective work! All preconceptions, preferences, biases flung through the window; just you, your nose, your palate and your brain uncovering a mystery. No fancy branding or big name for a drink to hide behind, just the quality of what you find in your glass. Surely the one true way to review?
The second thing you ought to know is that I hate blind tastings. Hate them, hate them, hate them. And I speak as someone who has jumped through all the blind-tasting examination hoops that the WSET’s Diploma can throw and who, in a normal world, does quality control at work from delabelled bottles at least once a week.
Blind tastings – or rather, blind tastings in which the taster is expected to guess the identity of that which is in their glass – aren’t an objective way to assess a liquid, they’re a shortcut to sharpened insecurities. All-new pressures and confirmation biases are brought in, you start to second guess yourself – to think and assume things that would never enter your brain under normal circumstances. You will, through some small aspect or another, convince yourself you have an answer and your mind will tailor everything from then on to persuade yourself that you are right. I once, in a spirits exam, having gone in suspecting I’d be given something terribly niche, was halfway through writing a note for some sort of piney, citrusy eau de vie when I realised “no, you cretin, what are you talking about, it’s a totally normal gin”.
Blind tasting inevitably becomes more about you and your mental state than it does about the drink you’re analysing. If I wanted someone’s real opinion of a drink I would never, ever take the assessment they gave it when they were trying to guess, blind, what it actually is. Personally I read reviews for the informed take of someone I have come to trust, not to watch some poor soul muddle through an organoleptic guessing game.
All of which is a roundabout route to telling you that the five ciders I’ve written notes for today were all tasted (and written up) in blind conditions.
Or rather – and if anything, this is worse – semi-blind. You see back in 2019, Ross on Wye’s Albert Johnson pressed some apples, and sent the unfermented juice to four other makers – Oliver’s, Little Pomona, Hogan’s and Pilton. All were free to do whatever they wanted with it; to fashion that juice into cider entirely in their own image and on their own terms.
Fast forward to the start of May 2021 and Albert (very kindly!) presents me with a box of the five ciders. All in 750ml bottles, each one a different shade and clarity. None bearing the name of its maker, nor any details about the methods or containers involved in its creation. I wasn’t even allowed to know the blend (at which I protested mightily, demanding to know what help that knowledge would possibly afford, to no avail).
In essence, what this “One Juice” selection represents is a check to the concept of “minimum intervention cidermaking”. All five bottles have started at precisely the same point with precisely the same juice from precisely the same pressing, apples and orchards. If I am to succeed at all in establishing the identity of each bottle it will be because I have recognised not the fruit but the hand of the maker who bottled it. I will be associating my guesswork specifically with understood patterns of intervention – with methods and choices I associate with individual producers. Confirmation, should it be needed, that cider is an act of conscious skill, not simply the random happenstance of nature.
Biases, assumptions, predispositions and insecure neuroses locked and loaded I marched blindly into my five glasses. In the name of consistency all were tasted at room temperature – as it turns out that’s more or less how I’d recommend serving them anyway. My tasting notes below are submitted as they were written before Albert’s grand reveal.
One Juice 2019 #1 – review
Colour: Gold. Virtually clear. A dust of sediment at the bottom of the bottle.
On the nose: Medium intensity – no leaping from the glass here. Vanilla and orange-lemon fruit. A little musky farminess. A touch of oak but nothing overpowering. Not giving much away initially, but the fruit and oak swell and ripen as the cider sits in the glass.
In the mouth: Bigger here. Those fruits have intensified – not jammy, but ripe and juicy. Fully fermented and totally dry – tannins are tight-grained and very gum-gripping. More evidence of oak-spicing. Clove? It’s not immediately obvious what the barrels might have held before. The ripe, almost-heightened nature of the fruit, its close confluence with the oak and the tight, lignin-y tannin character alongside its dryness has me thinking Little Pomona. Some Dabinett? But there’s a seam of acidity too. Structural, fairly full-bodied. A spritz of fizz. I like it. Wants food or a little more ageing though.
My guess: Little Pomona
One Juice 2019 #2 – review
Colour: A semitone lighter and hazier
On the nose: I have previously had Ross on Wye juice fermented in two different cideries, so I reckon I know what the organoleptic signature of Ross on Wye’s specific wild yeast is fairly well, and I’m getting it here. A wet slate minerality and an almost-meatiness alongside the fruit. I reckon this has also either only just finished conditioning, or possibly is still going – there’s a whiff of struck match sulphur. Best left for a couple months more to make sure it’s opened at its best. No oak I don’t think; the yellow-orange fruit is right to the fore.
In the mouth: If this isn’t Ross I’ll eat my hat. Bone dry, obviously bottle-conditioned – this bottle, I think, is possibly still conditioning – bright fruit (unoaked?) in lemon, green apple and orange pith form alongside that slatey earthiness. Grippy tannins, medium-to-full body. Another that I like, though again I reckon it wants protein and I think it’ll be better for a month or two of letting that conditioning settle. I definitely reckon this is mainly Dabinett, but there’s that little zing of acidity. Nowhere near Foxwhelp. Browns? Maybe a spot of Michelin too? Somewhere in that area. Won’t be more than three if it’s a Ross blend.
My guess: Ross on Wye
One Juice 2019 #3 – review
Colour: Deepened to copper. Has the chunkiest sediment – little round dots, almost perry-like. Fizziest
On the nose: Well here’s a departure. Blimey, this nose is full of stuff and I’m not sure about some of it, to be honest. Deeper apple/apple juice – this definitely won’t be dry. There’s also a leathery, slightly horsey brettiness. West Highland Scotch whisky. A bit of volatile acidity too – something of estery wallpaper paste?
In the mouth: Definitely sweeter. Medium by my mileage. There is a juiciness of bruised apple, but we have some oxidation, some acetic acid and a bit of brett that heads too far down the horsey road for my preference. Some nice spicing though. Ginger beer? Dried citrus? But this one just isn’t for me, I’m afraid. Doesn’t present like the Keeved Oliver’s – I’d expect that to be hazier – so Pilton or Hogan’s. Not like Piltons I’ve had before, but are Pilton more likely than Hogan’s to leave the sediment in? Hmm. Stupid blind tasting.
My guess: Pilton
One Juice 2019 #4 – review
Colour: Also copper. Absolutely zero sediment. Surely filtered? Fairly fizzy
On the nose: Apple juice. Smells really nice, but this is definitely not fermented to dryness, and its signature is not like a Tom Oliver keeve. Oak? Vanilla at any rate, maybe cinnamon. Reminds me of Tamoshanta … but I’m also thinking of Hogan’s Libertine. Hmm.
In the mouth: Yep. If you like really tasty apple juice then you will like this. Crystal clear and whistle-clean, it’s ripe, juicy, fruity, super crowd-pleasing apple-juicy goodness. Couldn’t possibly guess varieties from this, though there’s some ripe tannin amidst body and juice and medium-level sweetness that balances it all well. Dangerously drinkable. I am massively thinking Tamoshanta, but do Pilton filter? Because there is no way this hasn’t been.
My guess: Hogan’s
One Juice 2019 #5 – review
Colour: Back to gold. Haziest yet but still pretty clear.
On the nose: That is surely Tom Oliver? The most overtly-oaked yet, feels like there’s definitely an Islay cask here and the resultant aromas remind me instantly of the citrus-smoke intertwangling of Tom’s Dry 2017, his Foxwhelp 2018 and his Writer’s Perry. Screams dry Oliver’s to me. The highest-toned yet; coastal smoke and lemon and pink grapefruit. I am a big fan, but this is the least about the juice so far.
In the mouth: See ‘on the nose’, really. Briney smoke coiling around peach and lemon fruit. Bright and fresh in its tones, but rounded in its body. Upfront citrus leading to fleshier fruit and some well-wrapped but nonetheless firm tannins. This is a cider for a barbecue, for sure. This has got to be the Oliver’s.
My guess: Oliver’s
My guess at the blend: Dabinett and Browns.
An absolutely fascinating tasting. It is wild to think that these began life locked in the very same apples, and this case is a tremendous showcase not only for the degree of diversity and opportunity that full-juice cidermaking affords, but for the variegated philosophies and techniques at play among some of Britain’s best producers.
There are also some fantastic ciders in this mix. If you don’t like smoke then number 5 won’t be for you and if you don’t like sweetness, 3 and 4 aren’t either, but personally, with the exception of number 3, whose elements of significant brett and volatile acidity simply aren’t to my taste, I would more than happily buy multiples of each as individual bottles. As it is, I shall certainly be purchasing another set and on merits of both interest and flavour, exhort you to do the same. They’re currently available directly from each participating cidery or from The Fine Cider Co here.
Now then. The bit you’re interested in. How did I actually do?
I was close. Pretty close. The blend was, indeed, Dabinett and Browns (80:20 in the Dabinett’s favour, which makes sense to me). On producers, well three out of five isn’t a disaster. Mocking laughter from the direction of Peterstow should be kept to a muted minimum, even if Albert wasn’t far too polite a chap for mocking laughter in the first place.
What is annoying is the nature of my slip-up. Before I had even opened the bottles, I presumed the very different-looking sediment of #3 to be evidence of a particular method of production. Keeving, I persuaded myself. “Pilton”, said my brain. Looking back at my note for #4 I have mentioned Tamoshanta twice. I mentioned it with confidence, having had Tamoshanta not a week before. No rational brain would, on that logic, possibly have then written #4 down as anything but Pilton. The sediment and my doubts about filtration shouldn’t even have entered the equation.
Honestly. I hate blind tastings.
The One Juice correct identities:
1. Little Pomona – wild fermented, matured in tank and rum barrel, bottle conditioned.
2. Ross on Wye – wild fermented, unoaked, bottle conditioned.
3. Hogan’s – pasteurised, fermented with brettanomyces yeast.
4. Pilton – keeved, matured in whisky barrel, bottled pét nat
5. Oliver’s – wild fermented in Islayvwhisky barrel with small amount additional Foxwhelp
Many thanks to Albert for the One Juice set and to James Forbes for the lead image (also thanks to Martin for taking it – apologies for not realising this when the article originally posted!). I’d normally say “such things don’t affect our reviews” at this point, but given I didn’t even know what I was tasting, that’s especially true today.