The story of cider is a story of apples and the story of apples is a story of immigration.
It doesn’t take much of a poke around google to uncover phrases describing apples along the lines of “the quintessentially English fruit”, nor riffs on the John Evelyn quote that cider is “the native English wine”. And both sentiments are reasonable; apple trees are almost ubiquitous in England; take a half hour walk anywhere, be it countryside or the middle of a town or city and the chances are you’ll pass at least one. The country is also, and by an enormous measure, the world’s largest producer of cider; one of the very few nations in the world in which finding a licensed bar without cider is a genuine anomaly.
But the route that apples and cider have taken to arrive at this position of national prominence is as circuitous and as international in its cast of characters as is the story of England itself. A thousand years before the concept of a unified England was even considered, at a time when the language likely bore closer resemblance to modern day Welsh or Gaelic, depending on what part of the country you were in, apples were a bulbous, knobbly, unimaginably exotic fruit growing 4,000 miles away in the Tien Shan mountains of modern day Kazakhstan.
When Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria were first knitted together into the country now thought of as England, the region of Asturias in Spain was establishing the first example of what we might now think of as a cider industry. Tannin-rich bittersweet apples, arguably the crown jewel and most coveted asset of modern English cider, are the long-term result of invasion and conquest by the Norman French – as, incidentally, are England’s extensive plantings of pear trees.
We could go on, but the point is this: cider is at its best when it exists without borders. To use a modern example, look how much of Britain’s #rethinkcider movement of the last few years has drawn inspiration from the unified craft cider surge across the Atlantic in the USA. In the opposite direction, look how many American producers are seeking to get their hands on European but particularly English apple varieties, to bring elements of those flavour palettes into their own creations. Then take keeved ciders – a process first referenced in John Evelyn’s 1664 Slyva: A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber. Something that all-but vanished in England, but became virtually ubiquitous among the makers of Norman and Breton cider and is now experiencing such revival in the cideries of the UK that Martyn Goodwin-Sharman has expressed his belief that it is “what’s going to get more people into fine cider”. Cider’s favourite historical story about itself is its creation of the method later adopted by Champagne, but as Rachel Hendry adroitly points out, had it not been for Champagne’s subsequent popularisation of the method, the likes of Gospel Green and Bollhayes and Chalkdown and Tinston Anatomy and so many, many more would not have felt moved to re-apply the techniques to English apples.
I’m on record as citing Downside Special Reserve 2016 as my all-time favourite perry. A blend of English, French and German varieties; if Paul Ross hadn’t tasted the Plant de Blanc-driven poirés of Normandy’s Domfront or the single variety Champagne Brätbirne from Germany’s Jörg Geiger, those trees wouldn’t have been planted in his orchard and that gorgeous Somerset perry could not possibly have been made.
There is nothing, in my opinion, to be gained by parochialism, and everything to be gained by opening our eyes to what other cidermaking cultures are doing and how their influence can improve our own. I cannot imagine a better future for British cider and perry than one which embraces French protection of orchards and investigation of terroirs and regions, takes Basque inspiration on pairing ciders with the best local foods and championing them through dedicated festivals, looks to the USA in respect of innovation, packaging and promotion, celebrates perry with the joyful exuberance of Austria’s Mostviertel and draws on the precision, dedication to hygiene and care for fruit evinced by the winemaking mentality of cideries in Australia. What’s more, I don’t think there’s a single country amongst those whose makers wouldn’t give their right arm for Britain’s reserves of world class apple and pear varieties. The potential for international cider – and the community of international cidermakers and cider drinkers – to connect and to thrive is mouthwatering. But only as mouthwatering as we collectively commit to making it.
Today’s drinks, the last in our dedicated month of international spotlighting, are perfect examples of a maker peeking over national fences for inspiration and applying their discoveries in a way that underscores their own national idiosyncrasy. We have briefly encountered Ireland’s Killahora Orchards when we touched on a trio of Irish craft ciders just over a year ago.
Although the estate was founded in 1750 and maps dating back to 1838 show orchards growing on their land in County Cork, Killahora’s modern iteration stems from the 2011 decision by Dave Watson and his father Tim to plant a range of international apple and pear varieties and to turn them into cider and perry with the drinks making expertise of Dave’s cousin, Barry Walsh. The estate now boasts over 1,000 trees; 148 varieties of apples and 48 of pear, drawn from England, France, Austria, the USA and Kazakhstan – near-bewildering potential for the creation of flavour.
They make a wide range of cider and perry-based creations, but the three in my respective glasses today struck me as especially diverse in their international outlook.
First up is their 2017 Poiré, whose name nods perhaps to the French inspired pét nat technique used to induce its natural sparkle as well as to the style, level of sweetness and aesthetic of presentation Killahora were aiming for. Curiously though, it’s a particularly English blend of mainly Oldfield, Blakeney Red, Huffcap and Gin pears, such as you might find fermenting in any number of Herefordshire cideries. Killahora themselves are now selling the 2019 vintage, but the 2017 is still available for €15.95 from Baggot Street Wines. I bought mine for £17.50 from Cider is Wine, but at the time of writing this they appear to have just gone out of stock.
Killahora Orchards Poiré 2017 – review
How I served: Chilled
On the nose: A real Blakeney Red-Huffcap bloom of honeyed fruit on the nose, its fulsomeness lend elegance likely by the influence of Oldfield. (I wonder whether the Huffcap in question was Hendre or Yellow?) I would believe this as top-end Herefordshire in a heartbeat, though there’s almost a touch of extra richness and exoticism set against, say, Newton Court Black Mountain. Honeydew melon, lime marmalade, quince jelly, ripe pear in syrup. Just gorgeous.
In the mouth: Freshness and ripeness and fizz set to Eric Bordelet territory of precision, yet with less sweetness and with the flavours of English, rather than French, varieties. Golden pear, honey and the richest end of sun-warmed lime. Pineapple juice. The fruit is magnificent and just starting to mature into a richer and more luxurious dried character, though that pristine elegance – the influence of judicious though not at all intrusive acidity – is never lost. Tannins are integrated entirely – this can very happily be drunk entirely on its own.
In a nutshell: The meeting place of Savennières, Chablis and Herefordshire in opulence, definition and flavour. World class perry.
Ice cider, the Canadian-invented riff on Canada and Germany’s ice wine, is something we love on Cider Review, but haven’t tasted here in a good few months now. Time to put that right. We covered in some detail with Eden’s Eleanor Leger the difference between ice cider made from directly frozen apples (cryo-extraction) versus from frozen juice (cryo-concentration) as well as the difference between cryoconcentration through natural cold versus through induced cold. Like virtually every producer south of Sweden’s Brännland, Killahora use the latter technique.
Looking to put their own twist on the drink, Killahora’s Rare Apple Ice Wine [sic] utilises a proportion of tannic bittersweets with the aim of creating something more appropriate for pairing with local cheeses and particularly goats cheese. A 375ml bottle of the 2018 vintage costs €25.95 directly from Killahora or £30 from Cider is Wine, admittedly putting it at the upper end of even ice cider’s necessarily higher-priced scale. £10 cheaper than Queen Mab, mind you, and that was the best cider I’ve ever tried in my life. Let’s see how this compares.
Killahora Orchards Rare Apple Ice Wine 2017 – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Colour: Very rich amber
On the nose: Straight into fulsome tarte tatin, dried apple slices and spiced apple territory. A little dark, dried orange peel. Vanilla and grated nutmeg. A great deal of intense baked apple too. Super fruit forward and despite its richness shows real freshness.
In the mouth: Superb delivery. Acidity is here offering a lift to the more unctuous and decadent sugars, but we’re not at the more mouth-puckering Brännland end, or even at Eden’s level. Again, feels like essence of apples done three ways – baked, spice and dried. Fulsome, rich, full-bodied, with just a light, light grip of tannin amidst the velvety, mouth-coating body. Yet at the same time there’s real freshness and elegance and vibrancy here.
In a nutshell: A very, very good ice cider, if not quite at the most outrageous levels of complexity some competitors achieve. Would pour for anyone, certain they’d adore it.
For Killahora’s final creation of the day their gaze returns to France and to Normandy’s magnificent fortified gift, Pommeau. For everything you need to know about this glorious and (in the UK) painfully overlooked drink, see our interview with Mathilde de Bazouges here; in brief, Pommeau is Normandy’s confluence of fresh pressed apple juice with distilled apple spirit. Normandy being part of France there are numerous attributes the drink must possess and rules of manufacture to which it must conform in order to bear the name Pommeau, not least of which is that it must be made in Normandy. So today’s creation is not a Pommeau, but an Irish take on that drink.
Pomm’o (I love the name, but wonder how close to the legal wind they’re sailing) cleaves to the tradition of blending, and then barrel ageing, apple spirit and fresh-pressed juice. The bittersweet apples used (not specified, but I would imagine them to be more English than French in their varieties) are augmented with “a reasonable proportion” of the ice cider as well as the addition of “hedgerow flowers, always elderflower, sometimes gorse or others to give it a hint of floral and a sense of place”. The final touch to underscore its Irishness is that it is matured not in former apple brandy barrels, but in casks which previously held Irish whiskey. (Again, the distillery isn’t specified, but I’ll whisper my assumption in your digital ear, should you be curious).
So: an overtly Irish take on a Norman classic. The utilisation of techniques learned from another culture given a deliberate and distinctive fresh local colour. Exactly what blurred-border international cidermaking should be about. I can’t wait to taste it (I’m extremely curious about a fortified cider with hedgerow flowers). A 500ml bottle €25.95 from Killahora themselves, or £30 from Cider is Wine. Again, ambitiously priced compared to Norman rivals, but no doubt reflecting relative scales of production. Expectations calibrated accordingly nonetheless. Thanks, incidentally, to Barry and Kate for sending samples of this and the ice cider, above.
Killahora Orchards Pom’O 2018 – review
How I served: 45 minutes out of the fridge
Colour: Gleaming copper
On the nose: Instantly in fresh territory compared to Pommeau – in both senses! There’s a brightness, a real hedgerow greenness alongside lifted fresh apple, copper pennies, high-toned yellow citrus, almond and vanilla. Almost Provencal herbs. The deeper apple tones emerge with heather honey and fresh toffee as it warms, but those lovely herb garden/spring walk in the countryside topnotes persist.
In the mouth: The brightness and vivacity continue; much higher-toned than Pommeau’s norm, but with no loss to balance or intensity of flavour. The juice-spirit marriage is spot on; no excessive alcohol burn or over-spirity topnotes here at all. Florals have taken on a heather-gorse aspect, skipping over a ripe, fresh, juicy apple base. Mead, cigar leaf and a light seam of woodsmoke. That light herbiness again. The oaking has been very sensitive – just a brush of vanilla that lets fruit and flower take centre stage. Not too sweet and balanced splendidly by light acidity.
In a nutshell: A delicious redirection of a classic drink. A wonderful summer fortified.
Although both ice cider and fortified cider incur hefty inherent costs in their production, there’s no doubt that these creations sit at the most aspirational end of cider’s pricing spectrum. Certainly not the sort of thing I could normally afford to drink myself on anything but a very special occasion.
Are they worthy of that special occasion though? Yes. Absolutely. These are incredibly skilfully and sensitively-made drinks full of character and utterly without fault. The words I come back to repeatedly are “elegance” and “finesse”. Sometimes you see such terms used almost euphemistically used to mean “not all that much flavour intensity,” but that certainly isn’t the case here.
Importantly, each has taken a classic style and offered a discernibly individual take on it. The Pomm’O, in particular, is truly original; I drink a lot of Pommeau and fortifieds these days, and this is a real one-off. A gorgeous glass to have cold in summer, and I reckon it’d also be totally delicious drunk long with tonic or a spritzer. In fact I think I’ll make just such a thing after typing this up. If you’re able to pick up any of these three drinks, I heartily recommend doing so.
We’ve put extra focus on ciders outside of England this month, and it’s reaffirmed to me just how vibrant cider has become and how much everyone has to learn from each other. These Killahoras are a perfect symbol of that; none could possibly exist without the influence of France, of Canada, of England, but all three are uniquely Killahora to their marrow. If their flavours represent the potential of a connected world of cider then it’s a world I’m excited to be a part of.
As stated above, samples of the Rare Apple Ice Wine and Pom’o were sent by Killahora Orchards, but as long-term readers know, this doesn’t affect our editorial content or control.
Special ciders for special occasions – complexity and intense. Good nutshell description of the Poire.
Sometimes it is worth paying that extra bit for special ciders.
Cheers Richie – thanks for reading.
Absolutely. Notwithstanding the massively increased number of apples that ice and fortified ciders require.
I would guess pricing is also linked to the tax regime in Ireland. Really want to get down to killahora one day, they have a lot of heritage varietals and came runner up in our beoir cider competition a few years back with their Johnny fall down