An interesting phenomenon of the Cider Salon is the little passed-on frisson of excitement that wriggles through the show once a cider or perry, perhaps unexpectedly, has proven itself to be of special magnificence.
This year the ‘have you tried it yets?’ seemed mainly to be from the American producers from Washington and Oregon. Last year it was Cornwall’s Gould that prompted the muttering.
The first time I went to the Cider Salon, in its second iteration in 2019, the folk being talked about in hushed tones as the ‘do not leave without sampling’ were from an Irish producer, Killahora Orchards. Particularly their breathtaking, elegant Poiré.
A couple of years later I was able to try the 2017 edition as part of a spotlight on the cidery generally, and found ti to be every bit as good as I had remembered. Indeed whilst I’ve enjoyed all of the creations I’ve had from Killahora to date, it always seems to be their perry that stands out most in mind; particularly impressive given Ireland has no significant, long-established perry tradition, but rather a small handful of excellent producers.
We’ve often found that such isolated dedication produces the best results — consider the likes of Eve’s in the Finger Lakes, or Ramborn in Luxembourg — so it’s a pleasure to chat to Barry Walsh about making perry in Ireland’s County Cork.
CR: Introduce yourself and your company.
Barry: Barry here from Killahora Orchards – I do the production and sales. We started in 2011 when Dave and his father Tim wanted to plant something interesting on the land. I had been making some hedgerow drinks and beer brewing, so Dave proposed the idea of planting a cider orchard and off we went. Dave researched the initial set of cider and perry varietals which were planted that year, and we started making cider from whatever fruit we could get. After finding an OSi map from 1838, we discovered that we had planted the new trees on the site of an old cider orchard on the estate in Killahora.
It took a while to really understand the nuances of cider taste profiles and the ways to try to bring them to the fore, but we realised early on that the unique combination of the planted fruit, the south facing slopes of the land and our more artisan methods, (hand picking, maceration, wild fermentations, 12 month maturation), were producing something unlike anything else that was being made in Ireland. We also realised that what we were making was closer to an Irish vineyard than just a commercial cidery and that swung more of a focus onto developing products that properly reflected the uniqueness of what we were doing, such as the Pom’O, (Apple Port), the Rare Apple Ice Wine, and of course the perry. But at that stage we still had to wait some time for the perry trees to produce any yield; you may have heard the expression ‘pears for your heirs’!
Since then we’ve grown to feature on menus of a number of Michelin starred restaurants and to win awards in many of the main competitions, golds in Great Taste, Blas na hEireann, Food Writers Guild Awards Drink of the Year, and in the UK the Supreme international Champion at Royal Bath and West. Dave’s wife Kate has come on board to help with our growth and we’ve started to look more at international markets for our products, and fortunately our perry pear trees have started producing a lot more fruit.
CR: How did you come to start making perry?
Barry: My cousin Dave, one of the founders with an avid interest in trees and botany, had a real interest in the different varieties of pear and an appreciation of the unique and rare taste of a great perry. I wasn’t as familiar with the drink but had heard that when it’s well made it could have similarities to Champagne. It was only after tasting our first batch of pure Oldfield perry that I appreciated how special it could be.
Since then, my appreciation for the uniqueness of Perry has grown – it really is its own thing.
CR: Tell us about where you are. Its connection to perry and pear trees. The landscape (perhaps even the terroir!) and any perry culture (or lack thereof).
Barry: Perry pear trees aren’t fond of getting ‘wet feet’, and that would be the case with a lot of land in Ireland. Fortunately, our land near Cork city in the south of the country and on the Atlantic coast is well drained on sunny south-facing slopes and our trees are thriving. In fact we planted a number of the same trees both here and in Norfolk, and they have done much better here.
In terms of tradition, there was a strong cider and orchard tradition in the late 17th and 18th century, and medieval records of cider back as far as the 12th century but various events such as the Great Famine in the mid 19th century pretty much ruined what was there. There has been a resurgence in cider in the last 50 years driven by the main brand, but those in the craft cider side of things have a keen interest in developing Irish perries.
CR: Tell us about some of the pear varieties you work with. How they are to grow and work with and the different flavours they bring? Tell us about any of your favourites.
Barry: Wow, we have 148 types of apple and 48 types of pear! Possibly the most eclectic collection of these fruit trees in the country. The main varieties of pear that go into our perry are Oldfield, Blakeney Red, Hendre and Yellow Huffcap, Brandy, Moorcroft and the French varieties Plant de Blanc, Pore de Cloche and others. Some of our other perry pear varietal names are great though; Ducksbarn, Stinking bishop, Dead boy, Gin, Butt and Merry legs!
CR: And about the sort of perry you make? Your methods of making it as well as the styles you make.
Barry: We originally started with the aim to make more of a Poiré, as in a French style with a retention of sweetness, but since most of our fruit is West Country, and having had to deal with the challenge of retaining non-fermented sugar through racking etc (and it not always working out!), we have very much gone for a more simple pét-nat style where our only retained sweetness is coming from the non-fermentable sugars. Its more reliable and even though its more off-dry than medium in terms of balance, we find it matches better with some of our preferred pairings such as Cork oysters.
CR: What are the challenges you find in working with perry? Making, growing and selling?
Barry: Dave has sourced pears from the West country, France and even Austrian and Swabian varietals. We have lost some trees due to weather and occasionally canker, but probably the first challenge with perry pears specifically is knowing when they are ripe. There is one variety, I think Stinking Bishops, but I could be wrong that has literally a 5 day window between being unripe and being rotten, so it’s a challenge to time pressing correctly.
Second challenge is in terms of retaining sugar, we found that by slowing it down, even though we use wild fermentations, it can result in higher H2S production and reductive notes on the nose. Alternatively if not racking, it tends to go to dryness so that can be tricky.
In terms of selling, it’s a reasonably new or rare product in Ireland as there are really only 3 producers, but its been fabulously received and one of our more popular sellers….unfortunately we cant make enough of it!
CR: What is it that inspires you about perry? What do you love about it, both as a maker and a drinker?
Barry: It is a captivating drink for both maker and drinker; for maker, the trees are beautiful, tall, long living dramatic beasts, and the fruit has a unique balance floral aroma, acidity, (both malic and citric), sweetness, and tannic structure that requires minimal intervention or blending….though you do have certain challenges in making it compared to cider.
For the drinker, it is neither a wine nor a cider but something in between, that gives an intriguing drinking experience. Especially now given the increased preference for lower abv. drinks, a well made perry is so far ahead of an average prosecco in terms of drinking experience, that people now don’t mind spending a little bit more on something that doesn’t get them as drunk!
CR: And what is your greatest frustration around perry?
Barry: Our main challenge has been that perry pear trees are larger, and tend to catch more wind – hence we lost some of our favourites to Hurricane Ophelia a few years back and Climate change seems to be increasing the prevalence of late autumn storms. They also take so much longer to grow when they get knocked over! But the uniqueness of the drink and the impression it makes on people more than makes up for it.
CR: Your perfect perry and food pairing – and/or the time you most like to drink perry?
Barry: Seafood tends to standout – works great with oysters, fish and chips, prawns and as a general aperitif. The little bit of wildness in our perry matches the bit of wildness in the fish.
CR: What would you most want to tell a new drinker about perry to convince them to try it?
Barry: Good question – I tend to lead with the taste-first method though! But generally when you use some of the descriptors that are applicable to perry (lemon peel, gooseberry, melon, etc), combined with its rarity and localness it helps get them on board.
CR: And, finally, what is your all-time favourite of your own perries … and your all-time favourite from another producer?
Barry: We have an Oldfield tree that is just magical – it doesn’t always crop but when it does we always do ‘secret’ stash single tree batch for ourselves. It always gets better with age too, and we find around 3-4 years is really an optimal balance, though we have had older perries that have a lovely softness to them after longer aging.
I’ll name drop the usual, Tom Oliver for his fabulous experience and fruit, Ross-on-Wye for the sheer baffling range, Eric Bordelet for pushing the appreciation and execution to such a high level and Little Pomona for messing around with things while still staying true to the finest fruit!
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