Poor old Kingston Black. Honestly, when you’ve got Andrew Lea calling it “allegedly the perfect cider apple” and Gabe Cook calling it “the king of apples, end of”, how’s it supposed to cope?
Cider enthusiasts come to KB either expecting to see the divine and leaving disappointed when they don’t, or, as Our Man James did last year, specifically to interrogate the lofty pedestal on which this apple is often deposited.
For the record, I stand by my conclusions drawn in that same article: that Kingston Black defers to at least one master in every individual aspect, but is the ultimate jack-of-all-trades. There are varieties more voluptuous in their fruit, higher in their sugar, firmer in their tannin or zestier in their acidity, but not rolled into one.
Being, as I suggested last year, the “7 out of 10 all round”, Kingston Black seems to suffer more than most varieties when it is watered down, artificially sweetened or in some other way knocked about. After all, without one huge, defining character shining through, everything starts fading rather fast when the cider is reduced. With the result that, historically, there have been a fair few uninspiring KBs doing the rounds on UK shelves, which has only enhanced the cries for it to be hauled down from its suggested podium. I can count the number of people whose favourite apple I know to be Kingston Black on the fingers of three fingers.
But in the last twelve months I’ve seemed to see – as I have in so many of cider’s facets – Kingston Black being treated by makers with fresh respect. A few more full-juice, beautifully presented expressions. Evidence, maybe, of a bit more love. Just a couple of days ago I was bowled over by the quality of Artistraw’s 2019, and I’m not the only one to have said so.
So today’s flight of fancy is a return of the King. Eight Kingston Blacks from eight different cideries. Let’s see how they all get on.
First up, from Kingston Black’s native Somerset, is The Newt 2019. From their 375ml single variety range, which I covered pretty thoroughly here a year ago. James also took a look at their 2018 Kingston Black in our original article. We share a keen interest in The Newt as well as high expectations of their output given the team and resources behind it. Indeed we’re both signed up to their subscription boxes, which is where I came by this bottle. As with the rest of their range, this 2019 KB has been fermented at low temperatures with a wine yeast. In this instance the fermentation has been arrested when the cider was virtually dry. A bottle costs £3 directly from their website.
The Newt Kingston Black 2019 (L0286) – review
Colour: Light white wine.
On the nose: Very much the lightest end of Kingston Black. Geraniums, soft apple, blossom. All very green and high-toned and floral. Nosed blind you might almost mistake it for a culinary variety. The florality is so pronounced that it flirts with slipping into slight soapiness, but avoids doing so just about.
In the mouth: Very light and delicate again. The acid takes the lead – green, malic. Brisk, entirely in the high octaves. More white florals, and here they do have a slightly soapy touch. At times this gives the sense almost of a greener, tarter prosecco, albeit with a dusting of chalky tannins. It’s crisp and zingy, but definitely, by my mileage, a somewhat atypical Kingston Black.
In a nutshell: Unusual. The most delicate end of Kingston Black’s spectrum. Easy-sipping and zesty.
Next in the firing line, from my current home county of Berkshire, we have Crazy Dave’s Serius Black. We first met the eponymous Dave over a year ago, when I toured my local cideries before the first lockdown. He was brimming with positive energy; the cidery was bigger and seemingly more dynamic than any of the other Berkshire gaffs I visited. It seemed as though it was going places – he was even making a perry with fruit he’d had from Oliver’s.
So it was with tremendous sadness that I heard a couple of months ago that Crazy Dave’s was selling the last of its bottled and pressed stock and closing its doors. A poignant reminder that we can’t take independent businesses for granted, and that if we want nice things we have to go out and buy them and drink them and champion them if we are financially able to, even if it is a bit harder, a bit more time-consuming and expensive than just nipping to the local supermarket. I wish Dave all the best with whatever he does next, but Berkshire cider is unquestionably the poorer for Crazy Dave’s loss.
Serius Black is a Kingston-dominated cider made with West Country fruit pressed and fermented in Berkshire. It is advertised as ‘medium’ on its label and bottles cost £3 or so.
Crazy Dave’s Serius Black – review
On the nose: Some really nice aromatics here. On the very ripe, clementine and passion fruit side of KB. Ruddy red apples. Noses in a very sweet direction. A light touch of butteriness too.
In the mouth: See nose. Pretty much exactly. Very fruity, in that tropical, juicy, almost squash-like way. There is a lot of sweetness here, but tannins and acidity lend a nice structure – it’s full of body and richness and intensity of flavour. Very clean too. Would have loved the fully-fermented, dry version, but this is a tasty, accessible cider that shows off KB really well, and certainly works for me.
In a nutshell: My favourite Crazy Dave’s I think. A nice, sessionable Kingston Black.
Number three sends us back West again, this time to Gloucestershire, where we find Old Stag. They’re not a cidery I’ve written about before, though I much admired their Ashton Brown Jersey when I had it a year or so ago.
I’m straining for much more information about them online, though they have a facebook page here should you wish to know more. This Kingston Black (I can’t see a record of the vintage on its label) came from batch L009 and has been bottled dry. Mine came from Middle Farm in Sussex and cost me a princely £3.29 for 500ml.
Old Stag Kingston Black L009 – review
Colour: Mid Gold
On the nose: Hearkens to some of the notes of the Newt – the soft apple, the lemon, the florals – but there’s a light butteriness here too. Vanilla. Perhaps a light tough of oxidation. Not an especially intense aroma.
In the mouth: Definitely acid-forward, buoyed by fairly prominent fizz. Lemons, apple skins, blossoms and rose petals. There’s a slightly distracting tang of citrusy disinfectant, but only a touch. Iron nails. That light, oxidative touch at the end. Totally dry.
In a nutshell: The bright, high-toned face of Kingston Black, albeit with one or too slightly rough edges.
Continuing our county-trotting, cider number four takes us to Warwickshire, where Napton (new to these pages) have bottled a whisky cask aged Kingston Black. Or rather, going by the weighting on the label, a WHISKY CASK aged Kingston Black.
It’s the oldest of today’s gang, fermented with 2017 fruit and wild yeast before its maturation in an Auchentoshan cask. It also has the distinction of having been singled out for praise by Gabe Cook as one of the best ciders he’d tasted in 2020. You can read his full take here. Napton have since ceded to Auchentoshan’s Scottish roots by removing the ‘e’ from ‘whisky’ on the label, and it is from the updated-label batch that my tasting note comes today. A bottle cost me £10.50 from Scrattings.
Napton Kingston Black Whisky Cask 2017 – review
Colour: Deep amber
On the nose: Big aromatics. Red apple skins and dried citrus. A little sweet spice. That touch of ripe KB apricot. The whisky cask is mighty though – oak, vanilla, honey and the malty spirit itself all in throaty song. The fruit is just about big enough to balance it, but it is walking a very delicate tightrope.
In the mouth: A big mouthful. The oak is instantly grappling with the fruit and has dialled down KB’s acidity and lent grip to its tannin. Intense flavours – deep apple and dried apricot, then bags of savoury, drying, woody cask again, finishing to a nuttiness. Probably a KB that’s best with food and its wild intensity strains for harmony at times. The wood has perhaps just too much of the tiller hand such that it strays in a bitter direction by my mileage.
In a nutshell: Label weighting is your clue. A big, oaky beast of a Kingston Black.
A pair of very familiar faces up next, in the form of Ross on Wye and Little Pomona. I have reviewed a collective 38 of their creations here in the past, and James has added a few more. So, keeping things brief, their Kingston Blacks are remarkably similar on paper – both dry, both oak-aged, both 2019, both Herefordshire. Ross on Wye being Ross on Wye, theirs is bottle conditioned, whilst Little Pomona opted to make their KB pet nat. (Our taxonomy has some translations if any of these terms are new.) The Ross has been in American Oak ex-bourbon cask, whilst Little Pomona used a French oak barrel which previously held Meursault.
The Ross cost me £9 from Scrattings. You can also find it at The Cat in the Glass. The Little Pomona, being a. An earlier release and b. Little Pomona, is now rather harder to find, but at the time of writing is still available with Kwas for £13.50. (I would urge haste if you want to nab a bottle though).
Ross on Wye Kingston Black 2019 American Oak Cask – review
Colour: Burnished gold
On those nose: As with Napton we have big fruit and big oak, but here the fruit is more dominant, and its riper tropical tones meld harmoniously with the vanilla and coconut of the American oak. Dried mango and freshly-peeled satsuma. Nice.
In the mouth: Gets even better. Medium bodied but big in flavour and there’s a softness to the acidity and tannin. The fruit-oak balance strikes an almost Californian Chardonnay vibe – tropical and stone fruit with a touch of citrus beside vanilla and light chopped nuts. A flutter of butteriness before the tannins grip on the finish.
In a nutshell: The most complex and compelling so far. Ross on Wye at their most elegant.
Little Pomona Kingston Black 2019
Colour: Hazy Gold
On the nose: Turbo-charged KB fruit – candied orange rind, preserved lemon, fresh apricot and mango in big, billowing aromatic wafts. The barrel is certainly there, but it’s so melded with the fruit that you don’t see where the one ends and t’other begins. A little spiced golden syrup. It’s wild to think that this is a dry cider.
In the mouth: Voluptuous by KB standards – just so fruity and ripe, but kept honest by that nibble of pithy tannin and soft, refreshing acidity. Barely any fizz really. Again, the barrel is here – vanilla and just a little lignin spice – but it’s just seasoning. This is a huge mouthful of sinewy, balanced but outrageously opulent mango and apricot and orange. Kind of cider’s answer to top-tier Viognier, only with better acidity and structure.
In a nutshell: Vies with Monday’s Artistraw and maybe one or two others as my favourite Kingston Black to date.
Skyborry on Cider Review is the proverbial bus – nothing in over a year and then two listings in as many days. It’s another 2019, made from fruit harvested from 80-year-old trees. No mention of oak here – or of anything else besides its status as “medium” (for what it’s worth I believe it to be a cold-racked pet nat), so we march into the glass with expectations calibrated only by Skyborry’s previous excellent form. And perhaps by the rather aspirational price, at £15 per 750ml from Isca or £17 from Low Intervention.
Skyborry Kingston Black 2019 medium – review
Colour: Burnished copper
On the nose: Really lovely, super-juicy nose. Not too intense, but full of ripe oranges, red apple juice and citrus jelly. A little cinnamon. Completely clean and flawless – full of Kingston Character.
In the mouth: Still all about those juicy, deep, citrus tones. Satsuma, mandarin. There is some sweetness but it’s off-set by a full body and lovely, clean acidity. Not much tannin. It’s a fruit bomb – none of the butteriness that sometimes creeps into KB. There’s a nice chrysanthemum florality too.
In a nutshell: Can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t like this. Just lovely.
Starting to feel slightly KB’d out, but in the hopes of ending on a high I’m returning back to its home county for another Somersetian in the form of Wilding. They’ve appeared on Cider Review a couple of times before in the form of their Commix and their Yarlington Blend, but I’ve yet to really give them their own spotlight and, since I’m failing in that regard again today, I’m mentioning it as a bit of note-to-self.
I’m a great admirer of much of what Wilding do – their attention to varieties and orchards and vintage on bottle labels, their dedication to hand-picked fruit. In certain respects their approach reminds me of Little Pomona except that, unlike Little Pomona, the team at Wilding seem to like a little sweetness in their ciders. And so it proves today.
This last KB is another 2019 (we’ve certainly given that year good coverage today) and is described as medium-sweet, which I presume translates as cold racked. No additives, no sulphites, and I don’t think there’s any oak either. Just KB juice and yeast and a bit of time. Scrattings have it for £13, Cat in the Glass list it at £13.50 and a shuffle about on google reveals it in a handful of other places at roughly the same price. (We don’t get any commission from the links by the way. Just in case you wondered. It just seems a nice thing to do.)
Wilding Kingston Black 2019 – review
Colour: Burnt amber
On the nose: Definitely in Skyborry territory here – and maybe more intensely so, all citrus marmalade and tropical jelly and Turkish delight. There’s a little leather and dried leaf, but in the main this is a juice bomb – smells as sweet as I reckon it’s going to taste.
In the mouth: Big sweetness for sure, but the freshness of acidity balances it in the same manner you’d find in many a German Riesling or dessert wine. Flavours are deep and fulsome – oranges, mangoes, spiced apricots. Drinks almost like a sweet version of the Little Pomona. A little savoury twist of saddle leather. (Touch of brett?) Barely a scrap of tannin. This would go wonderfully with a fruity dessert. Or possibly with duck, not that I eat duck terribly often.
In a nutshell: A balanced, full and extremely tasty sweet cider.
My teeth are slightly hissing with all that acidity and latterly sugar. I’ve just remembered that I’m seeing the dentist tomorrow. Luckily my dentist seems to like me.
There are some exceptionally good ciders in this lineup – a few of them easily the equal of the stellar quartet I reviewed last year, and in the same class as Monday’s Artistraw. I’m particularly impressed by those of the 2019s that offered such rich, ripe, fulsome fruit in a year when sugars were generally on the low side. I don’t have specifics for which apple varieties and regions did best, mind you – if only someone would write a cider vintage report …
One thing that repeatedly stood out, tasting these side by side – besides the fact that they boast a lot more acidity and less body and tannin, some of the actual flavours of Kingston Black aren’t a million miles away from some of those of Dabinett. The orangey, peachy notes creeping towards tropical at their ripest. Just a random aside, nothing of real importance – except that we really ought to be taking every opportunity possible to comment on the flavours of varieties, oughtn’t we?
Mainly though, my conclusions remain exactly as they were last year. Kingston Black may not be “perfect”, but it probably does tick more boxes more satisfactorily than almost anything else. And in the right hands it is very, very good indeed.
Interesting critique of the mystique surrounding Kingston Black.
We have planted 80 trees this year, in order to secure our own supply as they are rare as hens teeth! But…….not many will be to make cider as we have found them to make apple juice which everyone who has tasted it says is like nectar and wants “more, please!”
Hoping to have a little made in October, more in the years to follow.
Thanks so much for reading it.
80 KBs! That’s some going. Yes, I imagine it’d make an amazing juice. I’ll keep my eyes peeled when October rolls round.
Hi Adam, I had a bottle of the Little Pomona Kingston Black during the Instagram Live chat you had with Rachel Hendry recently and can safely say that both the drink and company were truly a delight. The KB really reminded me of my gran’s homemade plum jam. Keep up the good work!
Thanks so much for watching that chat (and again tonight!) Really appreciate the support, and glad you’ve been enjoying it.
That Little Pomona’s really something. Excited to taste whatever KBs they make in future.
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