There is something of an irony to the country in which the most cider is made being the country famous for complaining about the weather.
Meteorological grumbles are not so much a British pastime as an irrepressible force of British habit. I am demonstrably guilty myself; in the last of our “In Conversations” on instagram live I moaned that conditions had recently been too wet and grey; just eight days beforehand I had groused about the heat being unreasonably OTT. We are collectively the Goldilocks of the elements, forever in thwarted search for our elusive “just right”.
For cidermakers, concerns over the weather extend rather further than what shoes to wear or how long sleeves should be. Conditions throughout the year will all, in however slight a way, dictate the quality of apples and by extension the quality and character of their resultant cider. A fortnight of rain in June? That’ll be the ripeness down a notch or too. December a bit warmer than usual? The trees may not be rested enough and their next year’s crop may be affected.
In the long term, of course, these little meteorological details add up to global warming, and rather more pressing considerations than the intensity of a cider’s flavour. We’ve written before about the gradual creep forward of the start of harvest, assiduously tracked by James Marsden of Gregg’s Pit. In the short term, unexpected (or at least un-hoped-for) quirks of climatic fate can do extraordinary and irreparable damage to individual vintages. The vineyards of France have this year been so hammered by unseasonably late frosts that up to 80% of vineyards have been damaged in certain regions, and the French government has declared an agricultural disaster and stepped in with an astonishing one billion euros of aid to growers. Just the day before yesterday Wendy and Patrick, whose 1785 Ciders and Perries I so admired only a week ago, posted this devastating video of the wreckage caused in their Black Forest orchard by a freak June hailstorm*. And in 2019 calamity befell Scotland’s Caledonian Cider.
The risk of weather ending a vintage early is, naturally, considerably heightened when you make a fruit-based drink in a tougher climate, and Caledonian’s location on the Black Isle, just north of Inverness, is certainly one of the UK’s harsher areas for apple growing. But acceptance of risk can’t make it any easier when May frosts wipe out virtually your entire crop besides a handful of late blossomers and Katja apples. Especially when it takes a whole year before you can have another go.
To my mind, Ryan’s resilience in the wake of losing his 2019 harvest was remarkable and inspirational. No overt stamping of feet, nor throwing in the towel. In his words he decided he “much preferred making cider to not making it”, so he bought cider apples from Ross Mangles, put his normal all-Highland-grown range on hold for a season, and created two of my favourite ciders of last year. Indeed the last eighteen months have been a story of fully-deserved success and new levels of prominence for Caledonian Cider, as Ryan’s consumer base has expanded beyond the Highlands and across the border. Not only has it become one of my favourite cideries anywhere in the UK, but their level of engagement with customers on social media and preparedness to uplift other makers through such things as their annually updated map of Scottish cideries. Scottish cider is an increasingly buzzing category at the moment; I’ve followed Dour Cider on Instagram with tremendous interest, have drunk Steilhead for a couple of years now and am eagerly tracking several other producers whose wares are sadly hard to come by south of the wall, but Caledonian remains, to my mind, the leader of the pack and the cidery whose new creations excite me most when they appear.
Which makes today a particularly exciting one, as I have no fewer than four new Caledonian ciders to taste, three of which are entirely made from 2020 vintage Highland apples, the weather having been more merciful last year (something had to be, for goodness’ sake).
First up is the 2020 vintage return of North and South; again a blend of keeved Somerset cider apples and dry Black Isle eaters, aged in whisky casks. The vintage isn’t listed on the label, but it can be distinguished from the previous edition by the use of clear glass rather than brown, and the addition of “A” in front of “Wild Fermented, Full Juice Cider”. (I enjoyed playing spot the difference when compiling this review). Like its predecessor it’s presented in 330ml bottles and I dare say will cost around £3.30. At present Fram Ferment and Cat in the Glass are both listing it, but since Fram’s picture is of the 2019 vintage and Cat in the Glass don’t have a picture (but hint at the 2019 in their description) be sure to check before placing an order.
An interesting characteristic of the 2019 edition was that a delay in its bottling at Stirling provoked a further “in tank” fermentation, causing a notably more exuberant mousse than Ryan had intended. I’m happy to report pre-review that no such mishap beheld the 2020, and that you can open your bottles with confidence and without a nearby sink. On which note …
Caledonian Cider North and South 2020 – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Colour: Light, hazy amber.
On the nose: Lovely clean, fresh, super juicy red apple nose. The oak feels different to the previous iteration – I’m assuming not peated whisky this time, and the red fruitiness is making me guess that the whisky casks previously held wine? Maybe sherry? A little raisin, even cola syrup. Tangerine, fizzy cherries and rosewater Turkish delight. Lovely and fruity and aromatic.
In the mouth: A good dab of sweetness, but not excessive or cloying. Pretty much bang on medium, I’d say. Again, super juicy, with a nice plump fullness. Very flavoursome again – orange and rich apple juice, with a seam of green and a touch of florality from the eaters. Oak presents with sultanas, red fruit and a touch of chopped nut – but never overwhelms. Carbonation is perfect. You can taste every aspect of this cider, yet none dominates. That’s what great blending should be all about. It is also dangerously drinkable.
In a nutshell: A juicy, layered, yet easy-going bottle of joy. You’ll need a second close to hand when you open the first.
The Highland-only creations begin with This is Ceitidh, a single variety cider made from the Katja variety, whose colloquial name “Katy” is important to avoid if you don’t want a sternly-worded legal letter from Somerset. At this point I must make a confession – Katja is not an apple variety of whose cider I am usually fond. It’s an early season sweet originating from Sweden, and in my experience it often has a pronounced florality which, especially when sweetened, can tend in a soapy direction, without the balancing structure lent by acidity or tannin. So I’m a little nervous about this cider, despite my long-standing respect for Ryan’s work.
This is Ceitidh was, like the other ciders on show today, fermented with wild yeasts in oak casks, though Ryan tells me that the casks for this release (and the subsequent High and Dry) were as neutral as possible, in deference to the delicate flavours of the apples used. Bottles cost aroundabout £10 and are available from Fram and from CITG.
Caledonian Cider This is Ceitidh 2020 – review
How I served: Chilled
Colour: Hazy hay
On the nose: Definitely a Katy – sorry, Katja, I meant Katja – nose, but sitting at the apple’s freshest end. Green, stalky, dandelion stem and nettles. Crushed blossom. A little lemon skin perfume and a light, unusual but not-at-all-unpleasant nuance of wax crayons and chlorine. The oak has been gentle – this is entirely about the Katja fruit.
In the mouth: Has a zip and a zest and an energy that this variety is so often missing. With the result that it has none of that often-offputting soapiness, but is citrusy and floral and full of life, possibly because it has been fermented to dryness and left there. That unusual wax crayon/chlorine nuance remains, but it intertwangles harmoniously and very tastily with the high notes and acidity. The light carbonation is very well judged.
In a nutshell: Easily my favourite cider from this variety. A gorgeous alternative to many an Italian white wine for drinking long and cold in the summer.
Next in our lineup is High and Dry, a cider to which I was particularly looking forward as, in his early conversation around it on twitter, Ryan pitched it as Scotland’s answer to Foxwhelp, a claim that will always capture my attention.
It’s a single variety James Grieve, a multi-purpose apple which Ryan has used in previous blends but which I have not, to my knowledge, encountered before as a solo act. As with the Ceitidh, High and Dry was fermented in neutral oak casks and bottled pét nat. 750ml will cost you the same as its stablemate, and is also available from Fram and Cat in the Glass.
Caledonian Cider High and Dry 2020 – review
How I served: Chilled
On the nose: Ooh. Even cleaner and zestier and fresher and more citrusy than the Ceitidh – and again all about that fruit. Lemons and limes and gooseberries and fizzy apple sweets and fresh-cut grass. The lightest, twiggy flutter of oak almost doesn’t register, but it’s there, and it adds to the evocative sense of a walk through the field.
In the mouth: Electric delivery. Again it’s all lemons and limes and cut green apples and pears with a little meadowflower adding softness. There’s no tannin, but there’s a skewer of zesty acidity. It’s screaming for a heap of smoked salmon or – better still – barbecued mackerel (a person can dream). I’m not sure that its flavours cleave too closely to the redness of Foxwhelp – this is more like an evolved form of Bramley … or to a really fresh Sauvignon Blanc at half the strength. Lovely dry cider and again the level of mousse works so well.
In a nutshell: It’s Sauvignon pet-nat from apples, and my goodness it’s delicious.
Last up is the one I’ve been both most looking forward to and most nervous about. The third iteration of Ryan’s Islay Cask (complete with a rebranded label). The first iteration of this cider would vie with Craobh Làn for the title of my favourite Caledonian ever, but, to my taste, its successor didn’t quite come together. This time Ryan has used Major, a variety originating in the Blackdown Hills and claimed by both Devon and Somerset. It’s a ripe, rounded, full-bodied variety which packs a good helping of tannin and often a notably phenolic finish, gloriously tamed recently in this bourbon cask bottling by Ross on Wye.
Islay and its whisky is a place and a product very dear to my heart, having spent six years as a whisky reviewer and having visited each of the island’s distilleries. Despite notable exceptions including Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain, it’s fair to say that the characteristic commonly associated with Islay’s whisky is the smoke generated by the burning of peat during the barley’s malting process (and indeed both Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain make peated whiskies in addition to their unpeated).
Though treasured by ever-growing numbers of devotees, peatsmoke is unquestionably a divisive flavour; one that some drinkers turn their noses up at entirely and that some makers want nowhere near their cider, pointing out (not unreasonably) that it is about as big a deviation from the flavour of apples as it is possible for a cask to take.
I should come clean and say that peated whisky cask cider, when it is bottled at a point when apple and smoke have achieved balance and harmony, is one of my favourite things, evidenced by my long-standing love of Ross on Wye’s Raison d’Être as well as the Foxwhelps bottled by Tom Oliver and Little Pomona last year. As an additional fan of Caledonian with a newly-instilled love for Major, this is a cider for which I have calibrated my expectations to the very highest level.
Ryan’s stayed tight-lipped on the identity of the Islay distillery (I have my suspicions based on the label, the flavours and his day to day job, but I’m no doubt way off). At the time of writing this third edition hasn’t been released for general sale, but I gather it will be imminent, I suspect it will be in a similar wheelpark of price, and it’s not a stretch to imagine that the websites already mentioned several times will ultimately be stockists.
Caledonian Cider Islay Cask 2020 – review
How I served: “Cellar temperature” (half an hour in the fridge if, like me, you don’t own a cellar). Room temperature is likely also fine.
Colour: Hazy amber.
On the nose: One of those unique, enigmatic, visceral and shifting noses whose slipperiness defies being pinned with a simple note, but let’s have a go. Burnt embers smouldering in a damp sea cave. The inside of a warm and woody barn. Barbecue sauce over big, ripe apple and orange. A fleeting greenness almost of salad leaves. Their confluence weaves itself into something rich and complex; this isn’t smoke on top of apple, as perhaps was the Oliver’s Foxwhelp or Tom’s One Juice contribution. This is a cider apple whose phenolic richness has so tightly enmeshed itself with oak and peat that they have become one wholly new thing. I love it.
In the mouth: Continues where the nose left off. Is that the phenol of peat, or of Major? It’s so hard to say, and then it shifts again. Lovely ripe, round, full-bodied and dry; at once super-juicy and full of tannin-chewy bittersweet texture. Fruit is enormous with orange and peach and red apple, but as though it has all been barbecued and coated in barbecue glaze. There’s almost a rich, savoury meat jus aspect. Smoked bacon. The oak and smoke and whisky become more pronounced towards the pithy, phenolic Major finish, but the ripe, coating fulsomeness never leaves your mouth. Big-bodied, big-boned, beautifully structured. Barely any acidity – doesn’t need it. It’s so rich – wants pairing with something hearty and decadent and almost certainly roasted.
In a nutshell: Compelling, searching, complex and evocative cider to spend forever unpicking. Major was a masterstroke. This is wonderful.
The prosaic, salient stuff first: these are four wonderful ciders which show off the diversity of flavours to be found across the spectrum of apple varieties and built upon through methods, maturation choices and sensitive blending. You should buy all of them (presuming you share my predispositions on peated whisky casks – if not, just buy the first three and know that You Are Missing Out).
But aside from the gustatory merits of these magnificent ciders, they are a testament to perseverance and optimism and determination and courage in the teeth of brutal, uncontrollable chance. Of not giving up after being dealt an unfair hand. In their way, at the risk of waxing slightly Invictus, these ciders are a metaphor for the bloodied-but-unbowed spirit that was behind #rethinkcider and which has begun to restore cider indelibly to the map of interested drinkers after decades of dismissal and scorn. They are a reminder that dark and seemingly insurmountable days are not forever; that an awful today does not preclude a bright tomorrow. That however hard it might be to see, even amidst the devastation of a frost-ravaged orchard is the promise of a new vintage and the potential for wonder and magic. I’m grateful to Ryan and his marvellous ciders for reminding me of that.
Samples were provided by Caledonian Cider, but such things effect neither our opinions nor our editorial control.
*The whole team at Cider Review want to express our best wishes and support to Patrick and Wendy at 1785 Cider and Perry at what must be an incredibly challenging time.