Casks are magical things and I love them.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t love them to the detriment of that which hasn’t been a cask. Just look at my outpouring of enthusiasm for such things as the Rull Orchard Orchard Moonlight, the Gregg’s Pit Dabinett and Yarlington Mill, the Newt Fine Perry. In wine, one of my favourite white grapes is Riesling, and most of those see precious little barrel influence. Unoaked ciders, perries and wines are, at their best, a joyous riot of exuberant unchecked fruit and I adore them for it.
But there is something about casks – particularly oak casks – that sounds a note in my heart; that evokes something, and that has done so ever since I dug my way through pictures of feasts at the end of Asterix books.
Perhaps that is partially it. There is something about barrels that instantly pulls me to the medieval, the ancient, the fantastical. To roaring fires, mead halls and drinking horns. And no one raised on my youthful diet of Tolkien, Pratchett, Bernard Cornwell, Saxon poetry and miscellaneous mythology is ever going to be immune to imagery like that. It is also a thing of surpassing wonder that these funny-shaped boxes, designed for holding large volumes of drinks, date back several thousand years and, in many respects, have yet to be improved upon.
Really though, my modern love of barrels has its roots in more organoleptic soil. Aforementioned Rieslings notwithstanding, the greater part of my favourite wines have probably seen the inside of one – including the supermarket Rioja Reserva that first turned my head back in 2009. My preferred spirits have generally been ameliorated by time in oak; whisky, barrel-aged rum, brandy. And peeking back at my “essential case of ciders and perries 2020”, over half of them were barrel-aged to my certain knowledge, and I’d lay at least a quid on a couple more of them having been in oak undisclosed.
On a sensorial level I love the array of tricks that oak barrels have at their disposal. I love that American white oak (Quercus Alba) is looser grained than French or other European oaks (Quercus Petraea and Quercus Robur) and thus can be sawn as well as just split for cask staves. I love that each imparts completely different flavours and characteristics – American oak with its vanilla and coconut and sweetness, European oak with its spicier, savouriery, lignin-clovey impressions. I love that, like a teabag, the more often a barrel is used, the less impact the wood has on flavour. I love that, in some cases, old oak barrels aren’t used for flavour at all, but to allow the tiniest, tiniest transfer of air – micro-oxygenation – that lets the cider (or wine) “breathe”; softens it that tiny little bit without introducing the cardboardy, sherried, oxidised flavours that would result from an underfilled barrel. I love that oak casks are actually alive; that under the influence of changes in temperature, the staves are expanding and contracting in the most imperceptibly tiny way, and that every time they do, the character of the liquid they hold changes in the minutest way as well.
I love that every barrel tells its own story; that even if you made two barrels from the same tree, toasted them to the same level, filled them with the same cider and aged them for the same length of time, side-by-side in the same warehouse, the results would be, however fractionally, perceptibly distinct. I love that, if the barrel has previously held another liquid – a wine, a spirit, a different cider, it will tell a little of that story too; that alongside the flavours of its parent tree it will brush a layer of something else, and continue to be its own irreplicable creature with its own unique story. I love that with each additional variable I have a new thing to think about when I taste my cider, my wine, my whisky; that the story of the apples and apple trees and land intertwines with another story of acorn and oak and fire and earthy sleep, and that when those two stories link hands most compellingly the most magical drinks of all spring into being.
I love that it’s a balance, an arm-wrestle, that harmony isn’t guaranteed to emerge, that ageing in casks demands care and monitoring; comes with the risks that the drink will oxidise or that the oak will overwhelm the fruit. I love that, even though stainless steel and plastic containers offer surer guarantees of a cleaner drink, that oak has endured, because, when it works, when that harmony is achieved, it is worth all the effort and all the heartache. That it is something profound.
Cider’s relationship with oak – certainly UK cider’s – is one that I find especially interesting. In two senses it borrows from both wine and whisky; the literal sense, in that you can find British cider sleeping in both ex-wine and ex-whisky casks, and the mindset sense, in that, like wine, cider generally enjoys a relatively short spell in oak at best, but like whisky (or at least like Scottish whisky), it tends to use casks that have previously held other liquids beforehand. I have previously mused that the reasoning behind this is as much fiscal as it is practical, new casks being very expensive things. Since a few ciders are starting to emerge that have aged in virgin oak, my suspicions that the “new oak is always too assertive for cider” argument was something of a generalisation have deepened.
The multifaceted nature of oak’s potential contribution to a drink means that inevitably the divisions of preference are significant (and, if we’re honest, not universally recognised as ‘divisions of preference’ – isn’t that always the way?) As already attested, my tolerance for oak probably sits on a high-ish end of the spectrum, though readers who were with me in my whisky writing days will know that 90% of the gig was trying to discern whether spirit character had been ameliorated, rather than overwhelmed, by oak. Since most British ciders are entirely unoaked, I’ve noticed a general tendency among cidermakers to incline towards a low-tolerant oak attitude. Just this week I felt that a cider had married apple and cask to perfection and immediately met with disagreement from a maker who felt it had gone too long in the wood. Different strokes.
Preference is equally divided on the subject of which casks are most suitable for cider. I know makers who are firmly in the “scotch whisky is best” camp, makers who incline more generally towards spirits and makers who are increasingly going in a wine cask direction. Surprisingly relatively few folk seem to be talking about the oak in terms of “French” or “American”, but perhaps that’s something that will come with time and interest. My own feeling is that suggesting any individual type of cask to be the default “best” is hopelessly general, and that certain oaks and previous contents naturally gravitate towards certain apples. The Little Pomona Art of Darkness 2017 series worked so well, in my opinion, because the natural reddish blush of Foxwhelp’s aromatics melded beautifully with the flavours given off by the red wine casks. Ex-Islay casks don’t have an automatic organoleptic foil; they’ll always be their own individual flavour atop that of the cider, and an especially tricky balancing act, but when married to big, bold intensely flavoured apples as they were in Raison d’Être, in the Oliver’s Foxwhelp 2018 and in the Wild Wood Laphroaig Cask Batch 2 from Ascension, they can add an extra layer of enjoyment without obscuring the fruit. (As an aside, I don’t really know what to say to people when they drink ciders from an Islay whisky cask and then grumble about smoky flavours).
Perhaps because we’re in the UK and thus our whisky biases lean in a Northerly, rather than Westerly direction, but I seem to have encountered a general belief among several British cidermakers and drinkers that ex-Scotch barrels do a more satisfying job than do ex-bourbon.
Or is there, perhaps, a concrete sensorial reason? In both cases the barrel’s oak of origin is likely to be American. Scotch distilleries also have a smattering of European oak, but the overwhelming majority of their modern barrels held bourbon before holding Scotch, and bourbon, by law, is aged in virgin casks which in 99.9% of cases are made of American oak. So is it perhaps that the leaning towards Scotch barrels for cider stems from their having been used more frequently beforehand, and thus being likely to impart less overt flavour? Is there a feeling that the more intense vanillas and coconuts and tropical tones of ex-bourbon casks will in some way clash with the flavours of English apples?
Or is it just personal preference?
As someone whose love for bourbon is just as great as their love for Scotch (and indeed their love for cider) I’m hereby declaring myself the perfect person to undertake a gustatory investigation. Lined up today are four single variety ciders from Ross on Wye, all of which, fairly unusually for Ross, were aged in ex-bourbon casks. All are from the 2019 vintage, and all are dry bittersweets: Major, Tremlett’s Bitter, Dabinett and Yarlington Mill respectively. (Though the Yarlington is not named as such and is just called “Stockmoor Farm”, in deference to the origin, rather than variety, of its apples. I just have inside info.) All of these apples but the Major are discussed in our Apple and Pear Varieties by Taste, should you want to know more about the classic flavours each imparts to an (unoaked) cider.
Each of the bottles here is available directly by click and collect from Ross on Wye itself. Should you not live close enough to the cidery I’m told they should become available on Scrattings and other retailers. All are served in 500ml bottles, which cost £3.70 apiece.
As a contrast, just for fun, I’m also tasting a Ross on Wye 2018 Dabinett aged in a Scotch whisky barrel, though you might reasonably point out that it isn’t a fair control, as it’s a different vintage. (I would then point out that that’s why I said “just for fun”.) You can also see James’ thoughts on this latter Dabinett in his epic Dabinettiad of last September, though I’m afraid a swift google suggests it has since sold out online.
Ross on Wye Stockmoor Farm Blend 2019 – review
How I served: Room temperature
Colour: Burnished gold
On the nose: The label says “savoury” and I tend to agree. There’s an earthy, almost malty, tone over bitter chocolate and some juicy fresh apple. Not quite the depth or intensity or “Christmas in a glass” I’ve come to expect from Ross Yarlington, which I dare say has influenced it not being labelled as such. I think that’s very much more to do with the fruit than with the cask choice though.
In the mouth: This is 8.3% but it’s soft as anything. More Yarlington character here – sultanas, spices and some apple juice over a bit of bourbon vanilla. Feels light for this apple and especially for a Ross version of this apple though – but I shouldn’t perhaps be hung up on that when it doesn’t, after all, say Yarlington on the bottle.
In a nutshell: Very pleasant. Good decision re labelling. Soft and light for Yarlington but perfectly nice.
Ross on Wye Tremlett’s Bitter Oak Cask 2019 (D79) – review
How I served: Room temperature
Colour: See Stockmoor Farm
On the nose: A big nose, packed with both variety and cask. Not quite intertwangled – almost dolloped side by side somehow. The bourbon influence has pulled the yellow Tremlett’s fruit in a very tropical direction – mango, banana, even foam banana sweets. Vanilla, coconut and a little savoury wood. Devon meets the Caribbean! Beach cider!
In the mouth: Young Tremlett’s can be brutal, but although there’s certainly some grippy, pithy, metallic tannins here, cask and malolactic fermentation have softened them tremendously. Still all that yellow tropical fruit – I’m very mentally stuck on banana, but there are juicier fruits here too. Creaminess – coconut, vanilla custard. Medium bodied, perfectly conditioned with that touch of fizz. Dry but super juicy. Like this loads, especially with a bit of food to mop up the most lingering tannins.
In a nutshell: The friendliest, most tropical face of the “beast of Devon”. Beautiful.
Ross on Wye Major Oak Cask 2019 (D80) – review
How I served: Room temperature
Colour: Rich amber
On the nose: Oh that’s gorgeous. A delicious, comforting pudding of a nose! The label says “crumble and honey” – hard agree from me there, to which I would add tarte tatin, clove, vanilla, sponge in dark golden syrup. That is a hug of a nose. Apple and oak have melded seamlessly. Superb.
In the mouth: How is this dry?! I want to see the specific gravity! Just the richest, deepest, juiciest, sweet-spiced apple pudding of a drink. This being less-than-two-year-old dry Major I expect a sudden blast of uncompromising, bitter phenols on the finish, but the cask and ripeness have mopped them up beautifully and the warm, rich, muscular hug-in-a-glass just goes on and on.
In a nutshell: One of the most drinkable and juicy and downright delicious RoW’s ever. Will buy many more. Amazing showcase of Major and bourbon barrels.
Ross on Wye Dabinett Oak Cask 2019 (D81) – review
How I served: Room temperature
Colour: Back to burnished gold
On the nose: Another big one. Super buttery, this one – buttered toast over orange oil and vanilla. Maybe not quite as seamless as the Major (so few oak cask ciders are!) but again the bourbon has amplified Dabinett’s usual characteristics. Some savoury black tea keeps things balanced.
In the mouth: Big, full, voluptuous body. Big in every sense really – tannins are ripe, not coarse, flavours (which follow the nose perfectly – a theme for this lineup) big, rich, rounded, intense, yet soft. Buttered popcorn, barrel char, vanilla, oak and juicy, juicy orange. Lightly pithy bitterness gives an almost orange-and-tonic vibe on the finish. Yum.
In a nutshell: Another winner, and another advert for how juicy and approachable good dry cider can be.
Ross on Wye Dabinett Oak Cask 2018 (D38)
How I served: Room temperature
Colour: Bright mid-gold (no haze)
On the nose: Deeper. As though the apple fruit has dried and richened. Spices are more savoury; husky. Cloves, lignin, black tea, dunnage warehouse. Dried blood orange. An autumn walk through a thick forest. More serious than its four predecessors.
In the mouth: This has definitely moved from summer to autumn. Everything’s darker, richer, more savoury and brooding. Dried mango, orange peel, forest floor and husk. Dark chocolate, hessian. It’s very complex and, like the Major, seamless in its confluence of fruit and oak. Black tea tannins on the finish alongside a smokiness (not peatiness).
In a nutshell: Hefty, full-bodied, intense, complex bittersweet cider that I want to savour slowly through a long evening. Outstanding stuff.
My standout flight in a week of standout flights. And one of my favourite flights of Ross ciders ever. There cannot be a collection of better value ciders – probably drinks full stop – in the UK, and if retailers have any sense they’ll ring Mike and Albert straight away and take whatever they can get.
For my money the bourbon casks have worked splendidly with the Tremlett’s, the Major and the Dabinett, yet have managed to do so in completely different ways in each case. The Dabinett has had all of its elements heightened somehow – made more Dabinetty, if you like. The Tremlett’s has a little of this, but also gives the sense of cask and fruit sitting chummily beside each other – two distinct and vocal layers. Whereas the Major (my pick of the 2019s) shows how oak and fruit combine at their best – the Major is amplified, another layer is added without there seeming to be a clash, and the bitterness and aggression of the finish has been perfectly softened and rounded. It is magnificent.
I like the Stockmoor Farm, and would buy and drink it again, but I really need to stop thinking of it as just Yarlington Mill, because in the context of the dark, rich, glorious Ross Yarlingtons from 2017 and 2014 it is a much lighter sort of thing. I can happily recommend it – a “perfectly good” Ross is better than most ciders elsewhere – it’s just a bit meek by comparison with its stablemates in this flight and its Yarlington predecessors. (An interesting commentary on the same fruit from different farms in and of itself).
The 2018 Dabinett has long been a favourite of mine, and it vies with the Major for my top spot of this stellar lineup. It goes in a completely different, savoury, dark direction to the others, but does so in a way that still showcases the harmony that can be achieved by cask and apple at their most well-paired.
My affection for good oak cask ciders (particularly good oak cask dry ciders) remains undiminished. Variety and cask depending, they result, at their best, in perhaps my favourite ciders of all. And the varieties and casks here work perfectly for me.