A review dump day today, but one which I have been very impatient to share. Simply, I am working on an article about Scottish cider generally, which seems to be having a rather exciting moment, and I thought that it would therefore be useful to try a few Scottish ciders, since I had hitherto tried creations from only four producers, one of which was Thistly Cross. And, as luck would have it, The Cat in the Glass had just cascaded a veritable hoard of Scottish ciders onto their website.
A quick spoiler first, before I dive in, since I know that there’s a sector of our readership who aren’t particularly interested in tasting notes (which is fair enough – I sometimes don’t read tasting notes myself).
This was a very, very good flight. I can often approach large flights of ciders, particularly from producers unfamiliar to me, with a degree of caution; there can often be a concerning number of faults, and I was worried that a later article on Scottish cider might be soured by an inconsistent tasting experience.
But in fact, as we’ll see, quite the reverse was true. And during the extensive tasting – a mighty twelve bottles; I summoned a few friends round to help afterward – a few themes, seams, patterns emerged, which I found to be particularly interesting and worth exploring.
Which in any case is why we tend to review in flights only in these parts, as far as our tastings go. My early blogging inspiration came through my time and my co-writers on Malt, where the tasting was technically the point of each article, but where the real meat and USP came through the preamble. But I am also a long-term fan of WhiskyFun, one with almost a decade in the wine industry (and a good bit longer as a consumer) behind me, and I believe that flights of drinks, in and of themselves, have the capacity, through their various contrasts and commonalities, to provide their own angle.
Which is really just a brief preamble to explain the lack of preamble – something we’ll continue to do from time to time, just as we’ll continue the unfettered wordy meanderings – and to say that I think this tasting flight of Scottish ciders (and one perry) is worth your time reading nonetheless. Which ought to go without saying given that I wrote it and published it on the internet.
Ready to go? Then let’s start with a perry and two ciders from Diggers, who are a natural cider maker from Perthshire using ‘nothing but local apples, wild yeasts and minimum intervention’. Details are fairly Spartan on the labels; the perry, Aster, is made from unspecified pears, whilst the very entertainingly-labelled ciders are made from exactly the same unknown (to me) blend of apples, but the first we’ll look at has been bottled still whilst the second has been bottle conditioned for a natural sparkle (I suspect pét nat, given their words on minimum intervention, but can’t confirm). The ciders cost £13.95 each from The Cat in the Glass, whilst the perry is £14.50.
Diggers Aster Perry 2021 – review
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: Hazy Sauvignon Blanc. Light fizz.
On the nose: Very subtle. Soft yellow pears, a touch of sharp sherbet and green leaf. Soft, simple, but very clean.
In the mouth: Attractive, rounded, juicy and delicate perry. Actually straining for tasting notes here slightly misses the point – this is a light, off-dry perry that tastes of pear fruit.
In a nutshell: A tasty, fresh, moreish and elegant perry, if slightly simple for the competitive price.
Diggers Still 2020 – review
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: Hazy pale straw
On the nose: Again quite subtle initially but spotlessly clean and grows in the glass. Lemons and sherbet lemons. Limes. Green apple slices. It’s delicate but there is a real breadth to the quality of its citrus fruit – flesh rather than pith.
In the mouth: Gosh! Far more intense than the nose – really direct and vibrant. A rasp of lemony acidity on arrival – not quite Bramley/Foxwhelp level but certainly more than Browns. Yellow citrus fruit, a touch of sour cherry and a buttery hint of malolactic. Again nice breadth of body – medium-weight, but not thin. Dry.
In a nutshell: One for sharp fans, definitely, but that includes me, so happy days. A very well made cider. Like it.
Diggers Sparkling 2020 – review
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: As above, but with a medium spritz.
On the nose: Shockingly, the notes are more or less the same. But buoyed by the carbonation here, the aromatics are much bigger – really pop. They seem fuller, somehow, conveying the effect of additional ripeness. Pink lemonade. Lime. Dried pink grapefruit. A slatey, mineral note which may have come from the conditioning complements the fruit well.
In the mouth: The fizz, which is at a perfect level, works beautifully here, increasing the body through its lovely frothy mousse and thereby seeming to soften the acidity a touch, giving more room for the flavours to express themselves and for those lemon’n’lime notes to shine. Though this still has a good zing. Longer finish too. Better balanced.
In a nutshell: Definitely distinct. The fizz has heightened it. Splendid cider.
Intriguingly, Peter Crawford, the man behind our next stop, Naughton Cider Company in Newport on Tay (where I lived for half a year!) is a Champagne expert who is quoted as not being a cider drinker. Yet clearly he has made at least two, since we are about to taste them, and his instagram is covered in exciting-looking pictures of barrels and pupitres and much more besides. Curious – and exciting! Lanthorn 2020, the only one of today’s flight in a 500ml, is made from unspecified culinary apples harvested around the flagstaff that once served as a marker for ships. £3.95 from Cat in the Glass, where I bought mine.
His second of today – Homage to Hogg 2020 – named in honour of the famous 19th century pomologist Robert Hogg, is a single variety Yarlington Mill aged in barrels previously used to vinify Pinot Noir for champagne. (So, importantly, as far as flavours go, French oak). The Yarlington fruit has come from Oxfordshire orchards, I believe, before fermentation in Scotland. A bottle costs £14.95 from Cat in the Glass.
Naughton Cider Company Lanthorn 2020 – review
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: Pinot Grigio-esque. Lightly sparkling.
On the nose: Apple sweeties, a savoury edge of herbs and hedgerow. Light apple compote. A little pear softness too. Again, quite simple, but fresh, clean and attractive.
In the mouth: See nose! Almost a carbon copy. Green, but a soft rather than a sharp green; the acidity here is light, just enough for freshness and crispness. Hedgerow, apple skins, a dusting of herbs. Refreshing lift from the delicate mousse.
In a nutshell: Brisk, bright, very refreshing. Easy to drink, easy to recommend.
Naughton Cider Company Homage to Hogg 2020 – review
How I served: Cellar temperature.
Appearance: Hazy copper. Still.
On the nose: That is a gorgeous Yarlington Mill nose, that is. Heady spiced orange, leather, clove, oak, dark dried apples, toffee. Almost like an orangey version of Christmas cake, if you can imagine such a thing. Dark chocolate. Opulent stuff. A beautiful, seamless marriage of French oak and its perfect apple variety.
In the mouth: Also a gorgeous delivery. Medium-bodied by Yarlington standards, though certainly full-bodied by cider standards, and possessed of a real freshness and definition that balances the apples natural depth and voluptuousness. A bit of grippy tannin reminds you that this variety is built to age and goes well with protein. Then the flavours are just a wonderful medley of browns and burned oranges. Deep fruit, oak spice, dried leaves, Seville oranges. Dry and, again, spotlessly clean.
In a nutshell: Stunning Yarlington Mill. A classic of the variety. An autumn essential.
Continuing the theme of apples sourced from England, our next stop is in Edinburgh, where Sail We Must are a sustainable fruit distiller and cidermaker. Today I’m tasting their inaugural cider, which is a single variety Dabinett made with Dorset fruit fermented in Scotland. Wild-fermented, naturally sparkling through the pét nat method, a bottle cost me £13.95, again from Cat in the Glass. (Actually, that’s where I bought every cider I’m tasting today, so I’m going to stop bothering with the name at this point and just give you the link and price!)
Sail We Must Cider Batch 1 – review
How I served: Very lightly chilled.
Appearance: Hazy orange gold. Medium fizz.
On the nose: Oh wow. Wow, wow, wow. One of the most immediately compelling single variety Dabinett noses I can remember. Every shade of orange – fresh, dried, juice, marmalade, crystalised, and fruit pastille. There’s a woody, herby quality too. Black tea, rosemary, thyme. Huge, billowing intensity and utterly spotless. I could nose this for oh so long.
In the mouth: Big, bold, beautiful, spotless Dabinett delivery to match. All those huge, many-faceted orange flavours, all with crystal-clear definition. A coil of smoky rosemary, a little polished wood. Some lightly grippy tannins – this is another candidate for good, protein-rich food – but the huge body wraps them up well. A nice level of fizz.
In a nutshell: Stunning Dabinett. Great fruit, sensitive making. Will age well, but drinks beautifully now. Top work.
Sticking in Edinburgh, our next creation comes from Dour, who make cider from lost and forgotten orchards and sites around the city. I have been meaning to try their cider for a long time now, since this very interesting piece on Burum Collective by cidermaker Christian Masters and especially since they were one of the two cidermakers listed in Pellicle’s Trendsetters and Trailblazers article for 2022 – some praise, given the number of cideries in the country. Today I have their Batch 2 2020, a still blend of varieties including Stoke Edith, Pippin, Herrings Pippin, Emneth Early, St Cecilia and others. £14.95 from You Know Where.
Dour Cider No.2 2020 – review
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: Pale white wine. Still
On the nose: Wow! A couple of distinctly unusual (in a good way!) aromas here. Most strikingly a distinct note of roast chicken and thyme flavoured crisps (which I love). Fresh herbs, lemon skin and a little coastal air. Very bright and fresh and mineral and clean, but plenty aromatic and complex.
In the mouth: Dry, with nice, non-excessive acidity and a lovely, full, white wine-esque texture. Full of juicy green apple, lemon, gooseberry and herb garden notes. Works perfectly as a still – super balanced for its style. Lots of lime flavour too, and a really nice minerality. Woodland after rain. Deliciously refreshing and again (a bit of a theme for this flight so far) so pure and clean and defined.
In a nutshell: A stellar point of entry for fans of Sauvignon Blanc and especially English white wines made from grapes like Bacchus.
Back up the coast now – we’re doing some serious hopping around the country today – to Aberdeenshire, where we find Easterton Cider. Like most on this list, it’s very new, launching its first bottlings only in the spring of this year. I didn’t look at the details online before trying these ciders – only what I could glean from the labels, but I now know Dry Run 2020 to be a 50-50 blend of Somerset Dabinett and local Aberdeenshire apples, whilst Halfway Wild, a blend of spontaneously fermented and pitched yeast cider, is around 20% Dabinett and 80% local varieties. Incidentally, I’m really impressed by Easterton’s level of detail online, naming the yeasts and including the amount of sugar they used to bottle condition these expressions for their sparkle. (8 grams per litre). £10.50 each for 750ml bottles.
Easterton Cider Dry Run 2020 – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Appearance: Mid-gold. Light sparkle.
On the nose: Cut grass and nettle mingle with tropical yellow tones of pineapple, kia ora, light mango, delicate vanilla – all very fresh. A touch of hay too and a little slateyness. Light wood. Red apple skins. Cranberries. Complex. Another really smashing nose.
In the mouth: Big delivery. A good rasp of red fruit acidity – wild strawberries, perhaps – and a little yellow pith – more lemons. Softens after a few moments to those yellow tropical tones and light woody spice. The mousse is light, creamy and well-judged.
In a nutshell: Another beautiful dry cider, tangy but full and complex and balanced in its fruit profile.
Easterton Halfway Wild 2020 – review
How I served: As above
Appearance: Lightly hazy burnished gold. Mild fizz.
On the nose: Similar to the above actually [Ed, after checking the website: hardly surprising really!] but bigger in its aromatics and the tones have moved from yellow to somewhere closer to orange. Touches of yeast and hay and slate giving the savoury dusting over tangerine skins, lilies, almost roses. A touch of apricot too. Lovely. Quite Ross on Wye-ish in some ways.
In the mouth: Tremendous delivery. Body, fruit and acid all match up perfectly. Has some zest, but presents less sharply than Dry Run and again the flavours and body are bigger, fuller, riper. Oranges and lemons. A flutter of tropicality. Forest floor – that lovely touch of earthiness. Apple skins. A touch of malolactic butteriness. I’m certain it isn’t, but this is doing a pretty good impression of something like a Somerset Redstreak-Browns blend.
In a nutshell: Complex, balanced, just plain lovely. Fans of Ross on Wye apply here.
Well this is shaping up to be one of the flights of the year – and I’m trying every single producer so far for the first time. So let’s end on a familiar note, with one of my favourite cideries, Caledonian. I’ve written up a good few of Ryan’s ciders now, and I don’t think it’s going too far to call him the most influential and consequential craft cidermaker in Scotland. So I’m always very pleased when a few of his new creations end up in the tasting glass, and today I have three.
I’ve reviewed a batch of High and Dry previously, and today I have the second edition – though slightly confusingly there doesn’t seem to be either batch number or vintage on the label. The first edition was a pét nat single variety James Grieve, but I’m not 100% certain that was the case for this round two. So a slight air of mystery. Cat in the Glass seem to have stuck with the original copy on their website, however today’s bottle is the new vintage, and costs £9.95.
Next up is This Land is Your Land – the result of a 2020 community project donating apples from local gardens, and £9.50 a bottle. Whilst finally we have the 2021 vintage of Ryan’s annual Islay Cask, in which cider, this time mixed bittersweet varieties grown on the Black Isle, have been aged in casks which formerly held peated Islay whisky. I absolutely loved last year’s iteration, and it’s a release I’m always especially excited to taste. £9.95 gets you a 750ml bottle.
Still with me? Almost there – let’s dive in.
Caledonian Cider High and Dry (batch 2?) – review
How I served: Chilled.
Appearance: Pale straw. Almost still. A very slight spritz.
On the nose: Green; grass, nettles, hedgerow all tinged with honey and vanilla from the casks. Slightly fermenting hay. This is a real walk in the outdoors after a downpour kind of nose.
In the mouth: Dry, but there is a perception of sweetness both from the casks and from the sheer juiciness. Pure green apples fringed with all that woodland vegetation and a light, honeyed hay. Blossom and honeysuckle. Less sharp than the previous I think; although there is a fresh, limey spritz this has a lovely, rounded texture that, as with the Dour, has me in mind of young, fresh white wine.
In a nutshell: An outdoorsy number that is another must for fans of English whites or Chenin Blanc.
Caledonian Cider This Land is Your Land 2020 – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Appearance: Burnt orange, medium sparkle.
On the nose: We’re into the big, ripe, spicy, orangey tones – just what varieties are people growing in their gardens on the Black Isle? Granite after rain in a big way. If I didn’t know better I’d wonder if there was Major in this. Honey and orange marmalade combined. Nettles. Tree bark. A bit of leather. Stunning balance of fruit, spice and savoury tones. Noses older than it is. Another nose for the Ross on Wye fan.
In the mouth: Big, ripe, full, rich and with a lovely balanced grip of tannin towards the end that just holds the fleshy, pithy orange and dried grapefruit in place. Seriously – what are they growing in these gardens? More wet rock – this is very mineral – a little oak, lots of dried leaves and dark chocolate and almost a light cured meat. Super full-flavoured, huge body, would age well and be epic with a hog roast.
In a nutshell: A superb, deep, burly cider that again is so redolent of the outdoors.
Caledonian Cider Islay Cask 2021 – review
How I served: Cellar temperature.
Appearance: Still cloudy lemonade.
On the nose: Peat! Not as much as in some editions but definitely a good curl of high-toned, maritime driftwood fire and herbal peatsmoke which goes more in the direction of certain Oliver’s oak cask ciders than, say, Ross on Wye’s Raison d’Être. Fruits beneath are yellow – pineapple, preserved lemon. Lurking under all that aromatic intensity there is a bit of volatile acidity though. It is pretty well hidden, certainly nowhere near overwhelming and most people won’t notice care, but it grows as the cider warms.
In the mouth: Intense! A big coastal rush of sea air, campfire ash, petrichor, smoke and those bright yellow fruits. Nice medium body, well-controlled tannins and nice high-toned yellow fruit which goes very well with the peat. There’s so much flavour that the VA almost slips by, and indeed some may feel that it adds to the character and to their enjoyment. It’s not my thing personally, and the 2020 edition was more my thing overall, but there is nonetheless a lot to like about this cider.
In a nutshell: A high-toned, yellow-fruited, sinewy take on this annual bottling, though with a little bit of volatile acidity.
I tweeted after tasting this flight on Monday that it was one of those lineups that I simply couldn’t wait to tell everyone about. Two days later I’m still thinking about it, and about how good it was.
I can’t overstate how impressive it is to have this size of lineup in front of me, none of which I have tasted before, mostly from makers whose creations I’ve not tried before, most of them wild-fermented, many of them the debut creations of those makers, and to find this level of consistent quality and cleanliness right across the board. The only one that gave me even the slightest niggle was the Islay Cask, and that was a very minor, all-but-hidden niggle, much of which comes down to preference. I can certainly think of drinkers who will love it.
What’s more, every cider was dry (what a time to be alive), every cider was full juice, minus the tiny bit of sugar involved in bottle conditioning, every pét nat was well-behaved; not one single explosive opening. (I can think of a couple of cidermakers who ought to take note of that last point).
Themes and seams? Definition and clarity are words that stand out in most of my tasting notes. There’s a purity of fruit flavour and a structural firmness running through the set, along with a good bit of freshness, and a fair amount of acidity to most of the Scottish-apple bottlings. In flavour terms though, every cider here took a distinctive journey … even though two of them were from the exact same blend (NB – wonderful to experience the difference that fizz makes to a profile.)
I should mention pricing, which is mainly on the high side. These are very small cideries – most of the batches of the ciders tasted today number in the low hundreds, so I understand the economics involved and that pricing in that range is really the only way to make a profit. What’s more, thinking about value – about whether I feel I’ve spent well on these bottles – it’s probably only the Aster that I’d want to knock a few quid off. And that was still a perfectly tasty perry – just one competing with some truly epic bottlings in its price range.
There’s a confidence to these bottlings, and it’s well-merited. Every cidermaker represented above should be incredibly proud of their creations, and will remain firmly on my radar to buy from again as soon as I can. If I’m singling out the absolute cream, Sail We Must’s Dabinett, Homage to Hogg, Halfway Wild and This Land is Your Land are the ones that would have me back for a fourth helping, but that really shouldn’t take the gloss off anything else in this flight.
I knew that exciting things were happening to cider in Scotland. It is wonderful to discover that those things are also absolutely delicious.
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