You don’t see many independent bottlings in cider.
In my old hangout, in the days when I wrote about whisky, they were ten a penny. Entire businesses are built around them right across the world to the tune of goodness knows how many million pounds. And it’s easy to see the appeal. A company with an interest in whisky buying particular casks from particular distilleries to do with as they will and thereby give drinkers an additional and virtually limitless range of whiskies presented in a way that their distillery of origin might not offer.
In practice, for the most part, this generally means single casks bottled at a higher strength – without the dilution that is generally practiced by the distillery brands themselves – showcasing a range of different ages and a range of different cask types. It’s by no means a sector solely for the dedicated enthusiast, but I’d wager that’d where the greater part of its custom comes from, as the huge regard held for particular bottlers and the consistent stream of independent bottling reviews online suggests.
Indeed so popular has independent bottling become in whisky, that it’s no longer solely the preserve of specific businesses. Retailers who generally stock distillery own brand bottlings and whiskies from dedicated independent bottling firms are almost always eager to buy additional casks for themselves as a unique offering for their customers. In American whiskey the so-called “store pick” phenomenon is now so widespread that demand for individual casks from liquor and general grocery stores far outstrips the supply distilleries are willing to provide, and “picks” by particularly well-thought-of stores often sell out as quickly (if not far more so) than limited edition bottlings from the distillery itself.
Cider, of course, is a very different business at a very different stage in its growth to whisky. Certainly its current enthusiasts could not currently get close to accounting for the number of independent bottlings hoovered up by the whisky community. As far as “store picks” go, it’s increasingly a rare city in the UK that doesn’t have at least one dedicated whisky store, whilst brick and mortar cider shops are a virtually non-existent entity now that Bristol’s has closed its doors and marched online. And of course full juice cider producers are generally far, far, far smaller than even the tiniest of whisky distilleries – the vast majority of cideries in the UK make less than 7,000 litres per year.
But it feels as though independent bottlings – or independent blends – are a concept that would increasingly chime with the modern cider enthusiast. In the last year and a half or so several new cider businesses, notably Fram Ferment and The Cat in the Glass, have arisen, founded by and predominantly catering to invested cider devotees. Independent bottlings gives them a unique line, compels custom from interested buyers, offers the chance to showcase something that deviates, perhaps, from the cidery’s norm, and builds a connection between the retailer and the cidery they choose to partner with.
One of my all-time favourite ciders was the result of blending collaboration between Ross on Wye and Two Belly Cider and Cheese shop. A blend of Dabinett, Michelin and Major, it had ripe, fleshy orange fruit, oak-smoky reminiscences of Ross’s Raison d’Être alongside a bold, intense, phenolic structural character all of its own. Had Two Belly not visited Ross on Wye that marvellous cider might never have been brought into being. I’ve since tasted Ross collaborations (yet to be released) with Fram Ferment and Queer Brewing, and saw recently that Cat in the Glass have worked on one of their own, whilst a second from Two Belly (of a very different style) is also now in bottle. It’s not especially surprising (and, to this palate, is very, very wonderful) that Ross collaborations are in such high demand, but it feels as though a trick is being missed by retailers in not reaching out to other cideries as well.
Bucking the trend is Crafty Nectar. Describing themselves as “nomadic cidermakers”, they’ve worked on creating their own blends with other producers for some time now, and for a while have offered a trio of 500ml bottles – “No.7”, a medium cider, “No.8” a cider blended with Rhubarb and No.9, a cider with blackberry and hibiscus. (According to their website they weren’t happy with blends No.1 through 6!)
Marching in step with the rest of UK cider this year, they’ve also moved into bottling limited edition vintage products in 750ml sharing bottles, and the two they released this year caught my eye in particular. “Elephant in the Room” is a 2018 dry cider from Stone’s in Somerset; a blend of Chisel Jersey, Somerset Redstreak and Dabinett that spent a hefty 24 months in French oak barrels. Even more arresting, to this viewer, was “Pear Way to Heaven” (groan), a blend of 2016 and 2017 perry from Downside, and indeed blended from the very last Downside stock produced before Downside’s Paul Ross moved on to the Newt. Given that the 2016 and 2017 Downside Special Reserves are possibly my all-time top two perries from any producer, my interest was more than piqued.
Since we’ve featured neither Crafty Nectar, Stone’s, nor any independent cider bottlings in these pages before, I reached out to the company for some additional information regarding these special editions and how they came together. Co-founder Ed Calvert was kind enough to respond, and his answers are submitted below.
Cider Review: How did these two blends come about?
Ed: Elephant in the Room, first. Alan Stone a is cider producer from Stones Cider who is semi-retired and is a key part of the Crafty Nectar team, helping us run our cider warehouse and operations. Alongside this he works with his son Richy to create a range of award winning ciders. Not many people know that he is a several time British Cider Champion winner for both Westcountry Dry and Keeved cider. Without a doubt Alan has incredible wealth of cider knowledge and experience having written four books about cider, so it always seems a bit inevitable that we would put our heads together to create some exciting cider creations. The first released collaboration with Alan was our Serendipity, a Somerset Keeved Cider made with cider apples from the ancient orchards of Glastonbury Abbey. We made 250 bottles of this and it was a success selling out in about 2 months (Finchy [Our Man James Finch – Ed] reviewed this on a tastealong last year!) but in the background we had been aging a Somerset blend in French oak barrels. We were keen to create a bone dry cider that was silky smooth, accessible and a true expression of the barrel and the apples used.
Pearway to Heaven, the collaboration with Paul, was a little more opportunistic. Crafty Nectar has worked with Paul for a number of years selling his Downside Perrys products and he lives about a mile from our HQ so pops in now again for a catch up etc. In 2018 he took the head cider maker role at The Newt and subsequently closed Downside Perry down, but I was always aware that he had a small amount of Perry left in the bottle. An impromptu catch up at CN HQ led to a conversation about how we might be able to use the Perry for something, Paul then dropped off some samples and we pondered on it for about 6 months and then came up with a plan and started to create some blends using the different vintages.
Cider Review: Why these two makers, and why these two drinks from them?
Ed: Crafty Nectar’s cider creations are all about collaboration with the best out there. Alan is one of Somerset’s best kept secrets, his cider tastes amazing, he is also a multi award winning cider maker, so we felt he ticked those requirements. Paul is of a similar vein; he was only making 3000 litres a year of Perry but is always taking the drink to a whole new level. His understanding of taste and profile is second to none, so when one of the best Perry makers in the world says they want to work with you on a project you don’t turn the opportunity down.
Cider Review: Did you work on the creation or just taste them and go ‘yep, that’s the stuff?’
Ed: Yes, we are involved in the creation of all of our blends from No.7 through to Pearway to Heaven. From idea, to blend, to bottle and branding. We also had a lot of fun bottling all of the 750ml’s by hand. It would be a lie to say we bring a wealth of cider making knowledge with us because we have only been producing cider since 2017. But we are in a very privileged position as we work with some of the best cider makers in the world, it’s such an amazing community of shared knowledge and we’re continuously learning. Plus we’ve tasted our fair share of ciders through 6 years of our Crafty Nectar monthly subscription…and we think we have a pretty good understanding of flavour profiles and what works and what doesn’t.
Cider Review: Can you talk me through their making, varieties and percentages of each variety as fully as possible?
Ed: The making of the perry for Pear Way to Heaven was simple. We took vintages from 2016 and 17, blended them together and added a small amount of Jonagold juice to it to help lift it back to life. But Paul always created his perrys to rival white wine, so they are high acid, high alcohol and high tannins. The varieties that go into each blend are a mixture of late season Somerset and Gloucestershire perry pears. These varieties require long maceration times, to help reduce the tannins. Once fermented, the perry is left on lees for 9 months and regularly stirred to help build up the body, a process known as batonnage in the wine world. Then it’s bottled and ready to go, but in our case the perry we have used has been aging in the bottle for another 3 or 4 years, which is a rarity in itself.
Elephant in the Room is a blend of traditional Somerset cider apples – Chisel Jersey, Dabinett and Somerset Redstreak and fermented out to dry. The best way to describe the blend once fermented is gritty, punchy and full-on. So to soften things up we left it in oak barrels for 2 years. Any less and the cider would have been too much for even the most seasoned cider drinker and sucked the moisture out of your mouth, the sky and the earth you stand on! The varieties were used because they are some of the oldest cider apples going and with a good dry cider you need apples with tannins and these three have that in abundance. They also offer a nice fruit nose. It also adds to the challenge of making something palatable without the use of sugars. Give cider enough time to chill, whatever the varieties, and the product will generally taste great.
Cider Review: Where did the names ‘Pear Way to Heaven’ and ‘Elephant in the Room’ come from?
Ed: The names are there to create mystery, intrigue and be whatever they want to be to the drinker. Ultimately to get your imagination going and play out your own narrative as you delve into the liquid. All our branding, even in our 500ml we use artists to showcase fun, funky and playful artwork to grab hold your attention.
Every process of enjoying the product requires a step of consideration from the consumer, from thinking about the meaning behind the name, examining the artwork on the label, to choosing which glass to drink the cider from. By creating these considerations and moments of reflection we are hopefully engaging our customer in a positive manner, which we could only normally do if we were talking to them directly. But from our side the process is such that we create the title and then give the artist free rein to create what they want around this. As much as we want the liquid and cider makers on the bottle to be a talking point, we want people to sit down and examine the bottle and properly engage with the vessel that the liquid arrives in and one of the ways to do this is great artwork.
Cider Review: Both are from Somerset – was that a conscious decision.
Ed: To start with, yes. We don’t feel that Somerset cider producers get enough airtime even though we are some of the best in the world. These products stem from wanting to team together to build Somerset’s cider making profile. And of course we are based in Somerset too at Craft Nectar HQ near Shepton Mallet, the heart of cider land in Somerset.
Cider Review: Will these be the sorts of releases you’ll look to do more of going forward?
Ed: Absolutely! We will always have our core range of products which won’t change. The 750mls are where we get to have a bit of fun each year, get innovative and it enables us to create interest in our brand all year round. One of the things cider producers struggle with most is being able to have a sustained level of intrigue throughout the year as cider is produced in October, November time and then released in the spring. We wanted to create two to three talking points each year with different producers, to get people excited and push cider forward as an all-year-round drink.
So watch this space as we have some awesome collaborations in the works for next year with two new producers already lined up…perhaps another ‘king of keeves’? Maybe a transatlantic collaboration… Whatever we do it’s such an exciting time to make cider, be part of an growing enthusiastic cider community and fulfil our mission of bringing ‘cider to the people’
Many thanks to Ed for taking the time to talk me through these Crafty Nectar bottlings in such detail. Elephant in the Room and Pear Way to Heaven are available on the CN website at £24 for three 750ml bottles (currently down from £36). They don’t appear to be offered as just a pair, as they were when I bought mine, but for the same £8-per bottle price you can buy them as part of a trio with Serendipity, an earlier keeved cider Crafty Nectar made, also with Stone’s.
Crafty Nectar Elephant in the Room 2018 (Stone’s Cider) – review
How I served: Room temperature
Colour and appearance: Lord of the Rings letters. Still.
On the nose: Big. The barrel has unsurprisingly had significant influence here – plenty of vanilla and caramel and clovey lignin spice. A buttery malolactic character too, à la something like oaked Californian Chardonnay – even a little smoky cheese rind phenolic. But there is also plenty of big, fleshy fruit – the hallmark of that enormously ripe vintage – expressing in waves of dried apricot and mango and tinned peach. Intense fare.
In the mouth: And still intense here. A huge mouthful of bittersweet fruit and oak. Chisel Jersey showing huge influence with ripe yellow pineapple and huge, pithy tannins, but it’s balanced with the fleshiness of orangey-peachey Dabinett and juicy Redstreak. Clove, nutmeg and polished oak from the cask, but the fruit is more than equal to it. That malolactic flutter of butter comes through on the finish before nails-hard Chisel tannins kick in again, just polished down by barrel.
In a nutshell: A huge mouthful, but a complex and excellent dry cider. Suitable for extended ageing or, if you can’t wait, robust, protein-rich food.
Crafty Nectar Pear Way to Heaven 2016/17 (Downside Perry) – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Colour/appearance: Tropical squash. Still.
On the nose: There’s never been a perry aroma like that conjured by Downside, and it is here straight away. To my nose the 2017 is showing more than the 2016 (see here for reference!) – that high-toned, aromatic lemon marmalade and blackcurrant and herbs and yuzu and tomato stem. Floral parma violets. But there’s a little of the rounder Turkish Delight of the 2016 too. Just so fresh and complex and fruity and unique, if seemingly a little lighter in intensity and lower in richness than I remember the Special Reserves to have been.
In the mouth: Classic Downside. An outstanding marriage of zesty, ripe lemony citrus with broader, juicier fruit. Blackcurrants, parma violets, Sicilian lemon juice, quince jelly and lime leaf. Lovely silky texture, all-but-dry, and just achingly ripe and complex and juicy and balanced and mesmerising. Could taste forever – those fruits and florals and spices are just divine. Again the depth and breadth and intensity seems down a notch on the Special Reserves, but only to a minor extent. This remains a wonderful perry, especially for summer.
In a nutshell: A fitting swan song for a world-class perry brand.
These fantastic drinks argue strongly for the concept of independent blends and bottlings. Not only full-flavoured, complex drinks in their own right, but ones which showcase a genuine diversion from the standard fare of their “home” cideries, whilst providing enough DNA for the interested drinker to easily see the link.
The Stone’s is one of the most bombastic ciders I’ll likely taste this year. Chisel Jersey – one of the heftiest apples of all, from the biggest, ripest vintage in the UK’s recent history and given two years in oak. Even with the additional body and roundness offered by Dabinett and Redstreak that’s an intense combination and has resulted in a truly enormous cider. I love it, I have bought additional bottles, but I’ll be pairing it with steaks or roasts, and possibly letting it age for a couple of years yet.
I tasted the Downside before I was aware of the addition of Jonagold, but looking back at my notes since being provided with the information, it makes sense. Part of me thinks it’s slightly a shame that the perry was added to; I recently opened another bottle of the 2016 Special Reserve, and to my mind it remains perfect as it is. That being said, the resultant drink not only has broad appeal, but has absolutely retained the unique idiosyncrasies of Downside Perry and offered a new and delicious take on what, to my mind, is a cherished classic. It was a joy to taste another, unexpected, final Downside again, and notwithstanding Paul’s continued work at the Newt, one that felt almost a little emotional. I would certainly urge anyone, particularly those who never got a chance to try Paul’s previous work, to pick up at least one bottle. Personally I’ve now bought five.
On this evidence I look forward to whatever Crafty Nectar bottle next, and I hope other retailers follow suit.