I have often talked of the importance of critics wearing preferences on their sleeves, so here is one of mine: I utterly love the flavour of smoke.
I am hardly alone in this. How many among us can put their hands up and claim not to enjoy the rich, smoky flavours of barbecued food? I imagine they’d be in the minority. Smoked salmon has long been a stalwart of the Marks & Spencer’s set, whilst bacon is a breakfast staple of millions.
When I think of the flavours of smoke I think of the kippers my father would have for breakfast on summer holidays to Scotland. I wasn’t such a fan, but that was down to the small bones; the smell I adored. I think of sandwiches stuffed full of pastrami, chorizo, andouille. I think of bockwurst bought impulsively at Christmas markets and casseroles in which I overdo the paprika.
Just last weekend I spent a few days in a field in Suffolk eating mainly from street food traders*. I had deep, lustrous, richly smoked Ethiopian stew, oak smoked chunks of glorious beefsteak stuffed into flatbread and jerk chicken with the smoky sear of the grill still fresh. Then on the way home I popped into Southwold for the day and found hot and cold smoked salmon, smoked trout and smoked mackerel all on the same seafood platter. Reader they all made me oh so happy, and they did so with such thrilling diversity of flavour.
The tendrils of smoke permeate so many of the drinks I love most, too. I’m rarely a tea drinker these days, but I will always make an exception for pinewood-tinted Lapsang Souchong or Russian Caravan. This article by Adrian Tierney-Jones on Pellicle inspired a mini-obsession with beech and oaksmoke-scented Rauchbier which gives me Saxo-Viking drinking hall vibes with every gulp. I adore Mezcal; one of my great unrealised dreams in the world of drinks is to visit some of the palenques of Oaxaca. And then, of course, there is my greatest smoke-scented love of all: peated single malt whisky, particularly, but certainly not exclusively, from the Scottish island of Islay.
Islay whiskies were always my father’s favourite, and there hasn’t really been a point of my drinking life when I haven’t been drawn to the flavours and aromas of peat myself. There is something so evocative to those turfy, earthy, rooty smells; those murky ethereal depths recalling late autumn evening walks past countryside cottages; fires smouldering in sooty stone hearths.
But what I have come to realise, as I have plunged further down these various gastronomic rabbit holes is that whilst it would be fair to say that I love the flavour of smoke, it would be more accurate and specific to say that I love the ways in which various different smokes interact with different foods and drinks. I love the way that oak smoke intertwangles with slow-barbecued beef for instance, but it is not simply the smoke, but the relationship it creates with the base food that I am finding alluring. If it only tasted of smoke I would be entirely uninterested.
Similarly, my love of peated whisky stems not from unequivocal passion for anything exposed to smoke particles, but from a specific pleasure in the way that barley entwines with peatsmoke in the form of distillate. Would I love peated rum or calvados or gin as much? I’d be very happy to find out, but the answer is probably “no”.
Smoke could be seen as a flavouring. But it can’t be added to something I don’t like and magically transform it into something that brings me olfactory joy. I have to like the base. Similarly, the flavours of the smoke should always be secondary to the flavours of that which it is smoking. This is certainly the case when it comes to peated whisky. If it were the case that smoke inevitably overwhelmed other flavours it wouldn’t matter whether I bought Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Ardmore, Port Charlotte or any other peated whisky. The fact that I can offer an order of preference is proof that, whilst I may enjoy the smoke, the base distillate is more important. In recent years I have come to particularly love the Kilkerran Heavily Peated bottlings from Glengyle. But it is precisely because that high level of peat doesn’t overwhelm the spirit, because the base whisky is still so idiosyncratically Kilkerran, that I have found myself so drawn to it.
Smoke is, of course, not a flavour that occurs naturally in cider, and there are those who, on this basis, suggest that it doesn’t really have a place. Yet nor is it a natural flavour in beer or in whisky. Cereals do not develop flavours of smoke any more than apples or grapes do. My hunch (half-baked; dont yell at me) would be that grain-based drinks are treated, or thought of, in different ways because of the tendency to forget that beer and whisky are agricultural products; to think of them solely as processes, as engineered by people, rather than driven by the flavours of base ingredients. The idea of ‘smoke’ might cause a shudder down the spine of someone with purist feelings on concepts like minimum intervention, but in truth there is no more or less reason for the flavours of smoke to appear in cider or wine than in beer or whisky. It is simply another element. Another flavour to conjure with. And one that I happen to like, just as I happen to like the flavours of pure, spontaneously-fermented apple juice. Because preference is not binary and I am entitled to contain multitudes.
Having established that the flavours influenced by various smokes upon various drinks are generally to my taste, here follows a random selection of potentially smoke-tinted ciders.
One of them, the Wild Wood Laphroaig Cask #2 from Sussex’s Ascension, we have met before in this article of, somehow, two years ago. (Chris has more recently delved into Ascension’s range here.) Today it gets the lesser-spotted re-review simply because I now also have #1 and felt it would be an interesting side by side. Whilst neither lists the apple varieties used in their cuvées, both are from the 2019 vintage and whereas #2 was aged purely in Laphroaig casks, #1 is a blend of Laphroaig casks and bourbon barrels. So we anticipate less smoke, though as our wise readers will know, no two barrels, even from the same distillery, are alike. So we’ll only find out by tasting.
Ascension Wild Wood #1 Bourbon/Laphroaig Cask 6.8% – review
How I served: Half an hour out of the fridge
Appearance: Coppery gold. Still.
On the nose: Very crisp and fresh. Complex too, though rather subtle. Rosy red apple skins, green apple slices. Red berries. The smoke is faint; mineral; saline almost. Sea-washed pebbles. A driftwood campfire far away. As it opens up in the glass the fruit ripens to peach and raspberry, but retains its delicacy throughout. Alluring.
In the mouth: Again a lovely crisp, crunchy, fresh delivery. Fresh apples, nectarine slices. A squeeze of lime perhaps. There’s a trace of tannin that, combined with the cask, dries and bitters somewhat but in a refreshing, pithy, moreish way. Chalky minerality. Medium-bodied. A bit more of the bourbon vanilla in evidence amidst faint, ashy wisps of woody smoke. Finishes to telltale lanolin and light medicine cabinet.
In a nutshell: The gentle, complex, defined face of smoky cider. Delicate, delicious, refreshing and still with years of ageing potential.
Ascension Wild Wood #2 Laphroaig Cask 6.8% – review
How I served: As above
Appearance: Hazy peach
On the nose: Certainly more peat than its sibling but again expressed in a crisp, clear, mineral, high-toned way. The bonfire is now much closer, the detail of the Laphroaig ash and germoline more defined. But the fruit character beneath it – the red blush, the peach, the squeeze of lemony citrus – are all in lovely order. A cracking, characterful nose.
In the mouth: This has come along splendidly in the last two years. The pith, whilst still there, has softened, revealing more of the ripe, crunchy apple and stone fruit and increasing the perception of body and juiciness. The iodine peatsmoke and mineral maritime character from the casks drifts through the fruit but compliments, never overwhelming it. Just another layer of complexity. Some nice ripe citrus helps the dry finish along.
In a nutshell: Bigger, more intense than its sibling, though still crisp and delicate, but cider and cask dovetail beautifully. Drinking superbly but will certainly keep. Fab.
Sticking to Sussex for the moment we have Starvecrow Islay Cask. A blend of Braeburn, Bramley and Jonagold apples which have been fermented and matured in an unspecified Islay Cask for eight months before bottling. I believe my bottle to be the 2019 edition, however the label does not specify, so caveat emptor. Assuming I have remembered correctly (always dangerous) you can buy it here for £16.20.
Starvecrow Islay Cask 2019 5.5% – review
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: Hazy lemon. Still.
On the nose: Lots going on here – aromas jump from the glass. Smoke actually not too overt – this is lemon rind and fresh seafood herbs and an overt waxiness – waxed crayons almost. Soft green apple and a wisp of woodsmoke. This reminds me of some of the lighter Basque ciders I had in Astigarraga, and it must be said that there’s some volatile acidity here too. Not to a massive degree; not totally offputting by any means, just not hugely my thing.
In the mouth: Dry, textural, winey delivery. No tannin, as you’d expect from the apples but a zip of acidity. More lemon peel, vanilla, waxiness, grass, green apple and floral characters. The wood and smoke really only present themselves in the slightest whispers. The volatile acidity is definitely still there, but whilst not my thing personally I can see that it leans in the flavour and style direction that the varieties used were taking the cider in anyway. Which is to say that it certainly retains cohesiveness and many will very much enjoy it.
In a nutshell: High-toned, waxy, lemony and much more fruit than barrel. Just a bit volatile for my personal taste.
Our barrel-influenced smokiness concludes in Herefordshire where we encounter a cider that was not supposed to be smoky at all. Little Pomona’s James Forbes is expressly against using peated whisky casks to house his creations, preferring those which have held such things as brandy, bourbon, rum, wine and unpeated single malt. Providence intervened however, and a rogue peated cask slipped through the net and past their noses, until they came to taste the cider sometime later and discovered to their horror that it had been Islayfied. Nonetheless, they made the best of it and bottled it as a club exclusive – Solera Foxwhelp. Predominantly Foxwhelp from the 2015 vintage, augmented by a little Ellis Bitter and Harry Masters’ Jersey, bottles have sadly long since sold out, but I couldn’t resist including a James Forbes cider in an article on smokiness. Foxwhelp and smoke, incidentally, is a combination that has delighted me no end in the past, so we approach the bottle with high hopes indeed, and advance apologies to our readers if it turns out to be delicious.
Little Pomona Solera Foxwhelp 7% – review
How I served: Half an hour out of the fridge. (Could have given it a bit more)
Appearance: New pennies. Still.
On the nose: Very mineral upfront – something of a theme in today’s flight so far. Coastal air and petrichor. A concentrated red apple skin, plum and light wild strawberry character, but this is a distinctly atypical Foxwhelp nose. Again the smoke really is just a wisp. Dried citrus is dark in nature. A hint of polished oak. Deep, serious and spotlessly clean.
In the mouth: Lovely, lovely texture. Full-bodied, sinewy, wine-like. Reminds me of Eve’s Albee Hill (though the flavours are nothing alike). Amazingly low acid by Foxwhelp standards – low enough even for our famously fussy Chris, I’d say. Just enough for structure and refreshment alongside a light brush of tannin. Still super-mineral; rainwater. Dry again, with pithy dried pink grapefruit, dried strawberry, red apple skins and red apple both dried and juicy. Opens up hugely with time in the glass. Very deep and complex. Enough flavour, body and depth to pair with serious food and concentrated enough for decanting or further ageing.
In a nutshell: Atypical Foxwhelp, but deep, cerebral, profound and outstanding cider.
Hadn’t planned to include this one, but I opened the Oliver’s Vintage Fine Cider Aged in Oak Barrels Season 2020 the other night, and lo and behold (lo and betaste?) some of those barrels had clearly come from our friends off the west coast of Scotland. So it’s sliding in here as a little bonus. This one is still available, at £8.40 from the man himself, £8.95 from The Cat in the Glass and possibly a few other places but I don’t get paid for these links and you wouldn’t believe how long it takes to do loads of them.
Oliver’s Vintage Fine Cider Season 2020 6.6% – review
How I served: Cool room temperature.
Appearance: Old gold. Still. (Lots of still today – not that I’m complaining, mind)
On the nose: ‘Smells like fire’ says Caroline, and certainly there’s a good, beguiling waft of woodsmoke and char here. The most richly smoky so far; one to frighten the ‘too smoky brigade’. But it’s so much more complex than that. Dried leaves, warmed apple skins, burnt orange, dried pink grapefruit. Vanilla and rich, spiced nutmeg. A simply gorgeous, comforting, deep fusion of apple and cask and smoke. Impossible to nose and not think of Autumn.
In the mouth: What a delivery. The perfect balance of juiciness (it’s very juicy actually) and oak, depth and freshness, acidity and tannin. An incredibly complex, layered and harmonious cider despite the enormousness and rumbustiousness of its flavours. How can something with this much going on be so balanced? All that ripe apple and deep citrus fruit, more pink grapefruit, plus a waxy yellow quality and then all that forest floor and fireside. I could drink this forever.
In a nutshell: Stunning, deep, rich, complex and beautiful example of oak-aged, Islay cask Herefordshire cider. Tom at his best.
Finally, something completely different. Bartestree Applewood-Smoke has derived its smoke influence not from barrels in which it has been held, but from being ‘cold smoked with applewood dust’. Something for which my mileage is absolutely nil, and which I cannot wait to try. It is a single variety Browns from the 2019 vintage, is somehow the first Bartestree cider we’ve covered in these pages (we’ve done a good few of their perries, mind) and I can’t even remember where I bought my bottle. Not my most helpful day from a consumer advice perspective, really. But let’s get tasting anyway.
Bartestree Applewood-Smoked Cider 4.3% – review
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: Pure gold. And – gadzooks! – fizz!
On the nose: Well I have barely any mileage for this nose whatsoever. A complete novelty. The classic Browns lemon (and touch of lemon detergent – in a good way) is here, but with a dusky overtone – almost dusty old books. Yellow apple skins, a little of the waxiness of the Starvecrow. Even more exotic touches of quince, and a touch of incensey smoke. As with many today, not too ‘smoky’ at all. An off-the-scale nose, but I’m here for it.
In the mouth: Loving the dryness of this flight, gang. This one has the merest fluttering of sweetness, but it’s pretty much dry. Ripe, juicy lemons; racy, nibbly green apple acidity, citrus tangfastics and an absolute burst of lemon sherbet that rides the frothy mousse and leaves my tongue fizzing long thereafter. That wraith of dusky, dusty, lightly-wooded smoke just glides delicately, almost unnoticed, above it. Nose was good, but this delivery is epic.
In a nutshell: Cracking. A total original, though the apple certainly expresses itself. My favourite Browns ever? Yes, could well be.
Actually, shall we stick a perry in on the end? I think we shall now. Thorn-Flakey Bark 2020 from Ross on Wye arrives as a tempting proposition to this taster in and of itself, being firstly a perry and secondly a blend of possibly my two favourite perry pear varieties (Thorn written up here and Flakey Bark written up here if they’re new to you). But what makes it extra intriguing is that the perry was fermented and matured in barrels which previously held Raison d’Être, the Ross on Wye flagship cider whose cask makeup always includes an Islay whisky component. (Vintages 2016-18 reviewed here and 2019 here). I’ve cited Raison as my favourite go-to cider before, and I dare say that the element of smoke doesn’t hurt that assessment, though I have also previously waxed purple on its all-important terroir. In any case: extremely excited to try a perry of such auspicious varieties aged in such hallowed casks. And to try something which has received its component of smoke third-hand. Vital statistics? Thorn makes up 90% of the blend and Flakey Bark the remaining 10. £9.50 from Cat in the Glass, though my bottle was a free review sample. Apologies for the quality of photo by the way – my bottle was given to me pre-label and Albert didn’t have a picturesque microwave* so instead we’re slumming it with a background of beautifully-carved Flakey Bark pear sculpture.
Ross on Wye Thorn-Flakey Bark 2020 5.8% – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Appearance: Hazy lemon green. A spritz of conditioning fizz.
On the nose: How is this only 10% Flakey Bark please? The Flakey simply leaps out; that slatey, rainwater, pear skin earthiness with almost a cured meatiness too. An apt conclusion to a very mineral flight. A little driftwood, but again the smoke here is subtle. Nettle, samphire, salty sea caves (one for Caroline there. The greenery and elderflower of Thorn are here, but they’re waving from the background. Hugely evocative perry nose.
In the mouth: Follows through perfectly from the nose with a controlled growl of Flakey Bark Tannin and a very controlled, refreshing (and, again, Chris-friendly) zip of Thorn acidity. The best of both pears. All that coastal air, fresh greenery, saline washed rock, earthiness, elderflower and light, light driftwood smoke buoyed with a gripping, mesmerising freshness. As with the Bartestree, absolutely unique; can’t think of a perry like it. The smoke rises gently on the finish, but remains very restrained. Engaging and mesmerising on another level. Hard to imagine a drink that so viscerally evokes the outdoors.
In a nutshell: The perfect marriage of Flakey’s bulk, depth and intensity with Thorn’s bright vivaciousness and greenery, and very clever use of oak. Obsessed with this perry.
What an absolutely, utterly, unforgettably mesmerising flight. A journey of flavour, texture, fruit and oak with a hugely idiosyncratic new dimension in every glass.
In no instance did the smoke dominate – indeed in all but the Oliver’s and possibly the Ascension #2 it was a light dressing only, and in those two instances the fruit had so much power and character that even a higher level of smoke couldn’t take the tiller hand in the cider.
If there was any theme it was an almost ubiquitous minerality; a coastal element that certainly evoked Islay’s peated whiskies, but which complimented the apple (and pear) fruit gorgeously, elevating and certainly never overwhelming. And in any case, the precise character of that minerality differed markedly across every bottle.
Proof, were more needed, that when casks are managed properly, fruit is always the dominant player in a cider, and that the right fruits can even master even significant levels of oak and smoke. Certainly proof that smoke, where it appears in a cider or perry, is not, and should not be considered, its sole or defining feature.
I really can’t urge you highly enough to try those of these creations which are still available. The only one which wasn’t quite for me was the Starvecrow, but I am certain that it would have its fervent devotees. As to the rest, I am trying very hard to pick a favourite and am coming up entirely short. Maybe the Oliver’s or the Ross on Wye. But then what about the Ascensions? Or the Little Pomona? And how could I forget that astonishing Bartestree? No. I’m not doing it. You can’t make me. I’m just delighted to have had them all in my life and glass. This flight has made me so, so happy.
*Alright, I was at Latitude. Take it up with Caroline.
**Actually Albert has a beautiful microwave. It is yellow and extremely fancy.