Features, perry, Reviews
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A visit to Killahora Orchards

The apple is perfectly innocuous. Nondescript, even. Pale-skinned, not especially waxy. Light green, with a few red grazes of suntan; you wouldn’t even really call it a blush. I take a bite and my mouth is filled with the redness of plums, the acid of sour cherries. I look at the revealed flesh in shock. It isn’t just tinted with rose, it is pure, solid pink; shocking, vivid, extraordinary. It’s like a magic trick; no one, looking at this fruit from the outside, could have guessed what was within. 

‘It doesn’t taste great’, says Dave Watson, ‘but it looks amazing.’

This remarkable apple, Hidden Rose, for those interested, a name ruined completely for me within about thirty seconds of posting it into a whatsapp group, is possibly the fiftieth I have tried in the last half hour. In fact that is probably an understatement; I never started counting and if I had I would have stopped long ago. 

Sprawling across this green slope just east of Cork on the southern Irish coast are some 200 varieties of apples and pears comprising something in the region of 1,500 trees. David knows most of them by sight, and has maps and spreadsheets to cover the rest. By the time we try Hidden Rose, just one among a row of red-fleshed apples, my untrained mouth has been utterly mangled by tannin, mainly the work of the perry pears. I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten so much fruit in my life; with every new pear I am passed I’m uttering a silent prayer for mercy, seldom granted.

These are the orchards of Killahora, run by Dave, his wife Kate, and his cousin, Barry. I’ve tried several of their creations before in these pages — they even contributed to our Perrymaker spotlight series. But despite visiting Waterford, just an hour and a half down the road, several times this year, I hadn’t had a chance to get across. Finally, finding myself with a spare weekend, I asked whether I could pay a visit.

You can find cider in more or less any pub you go into in Ireland, so long as you’re happy with Magner’s or Bulmers. The latter, incidentally, isn’t the Bulmers you might be familiar with in the UK – at least not these days. In 1937 Bulmers bought a 50% share of the cider part of Magner’s business, buying the other 50% in 1946. But since British companies couldn’t, by Irish law, hold a controlling stake in an Irish enterprise, they installed Thomas Jackson, an Irish national, to control the company for them. Later legal wrangles with Showerings (of Babycham fame) led Bulmer’s to sell their shares to Mr Jackson, who in turn sold the business to a consortium of Guinness and Allied Breweries — the parent company of Showerings themselves. Thus enabling Showerings to, in modern parlance, troll Bulmer’s by using their trademark to make and sell Bulmer’s Cider in Ireland.

On the full juice side of things, the picture is rather more sparse. By Barry’s reckoning there might be perhaps a dozen full juice cider producers across the country, with maybe no more than three or four producers making perry. All the more startling then to discover an orchard of such quality and variety growing here on the south coast.

Dave bought the place at auction back in 2010. An old abandoned farm of bare slopes and dilapidated buildings which they set about improving right away. Dave and Tim were keen to plant something on the land, and since Barry had already dabbled with hedgerow wines and home brew, Dave suggested an apple orchard. The first, a veritable library of varieties — anything they could get their hands on — was planted in 2011 at the top of the slope. As the trees began to mature and fruit, and as they established which varieties grew better on their soil and grew apples and pears they preferred, they continued their planting further down the slopes.

The most concentrated form of an orchard’s magic can only be appreciated when you visit one at around this time of year; when the apple and pear trees are in full plumage. In the course of my old job in the wine industry and my current job in whisky and rum I have walked across any number of agricultural plots growing produce for drinks. In a vineyard, beyond ‘those are white’ and ‘those are red’, distinguishing varieties takes someone with serious knowledge and experience. It’s a rare experience indeed to see two barley varieties growing contiguously, and most of us would barely notice even if we did.

To walk an orchard in September or October is to be dazzled by a colour palette perhaps unrivalled in the world of drinks. vivd yellow tennis balls with little brown sun-spots; vicious red-slashed streaks of violence; pears the size and shape and texture of potatoes; tiny, dazzling emeralds; pallid, ethereal spheres and miniscule orbs pulsing with furious indigo.

And oh the tastes and the textures; crisp, bright, glorious things you want to fill a bag with to snack on later; soft, mushy, claggy creatures you can dent with pressure from a thumb; vivd, mouth puckering mouthfuls of ruby-tinted electricity and gnarling, puckering, drying inedible mouth-sucking rasps of tannin that somehow, sometimes, make the very best drinks of all. Skins of Ellis Bitters so waxy they leave the residue on your hands, pears bletted brown on the inside – the look of rotten horror and the taste of tropical joy; crunchy, crystalline bites of lime and emeralds and woodland waterfalls; shy, pale-green skin over a heart of outrageous pink.

It isn’t just the number of varieties that strike me, as Dave whisks me through his plantings — not lingering on any one tree more than ten seconds or so, though invariably passing me its fruit to sample — but their origins. Most of the apples and pears have names you’d recognise from the West Country and Three Counties; Dabinett, Yarlington Mill, Foxwhelp, Browns, Harry Masters’ Jersey. But amidst them are a host of names from across the channel; Mattais, Marie Ménard, Avrolles and dozens besides. The pears too are an international gathering, not only your Gins and Oldfields and Blakeney Reds and Thorns, but Plant de Blanc and Antricotin. Especially interesting are the Austrian and German varieties, with names only lately familiar to me. Champagne Bratbirne, Gelbmöstler, Schweisser Wasserbirne. Not to mention the names I’ve barely seen anywhere else full stop — White Norman, Coppy, Eggleton Styre Reinette d’Obry — the list goes on further than I could possibly remember. An unimaginable library of flavour. The Reinette, incidentally, is delicious off the tree.

I’m curious as always about the growing conditions for the varieties. We’re right on the coast here, with a stunning southward view, and conditions I imagine get pretty rainy. But in this respect Killahora is lucky in its aspect. The steepness of the slope allows good drainage — so much so that Barry tells me trees they have planted in far-drier Norfolk struggle more for growth and ripeness than those here on Ireland’s south coast. Wind can be a problem for the taller trees towards the top of the slope; Dave points out a few that have fallen over, an annual occurrence, he tells me. But those further down seem, for the most part, to be staying strong. I’m struck by a passage I recently read in ‘Bulmers of Hereford: A Century of Cidermaking’ by Patrick Wilkinson, in which he describes Fred Bulmer attesting to never having seen better land for cider apples than in Ireland’s south-west. Judging by Killahora’s results thus far, he might have been onto something. Though I’m sad to hear that their Foxwhelp tends to struggle.

Intriguingly — and unbeknownst to them when they bought the property — there were once orchards on the spot where Killahora have now grown theirs. A few telltale remnants still stand; ancient trees here and there in the hedges, harvested for special cuvées. But the new era is clearly something distinct.

Despite their cornucopia of varieties, Killahora don’t have enough of any individual apple or pear yet to dabble much in the single variety line. That’ll come with time, as the trees mature, but Barry leans more in the direction of blends in any case. They bottle an early varieties and a late varieties blend, the former of which I reviewed here way back when, but even after a short conversation with Barry it becomes clear that his real joy lies in elevating his cider into something more: Ice Cider, for instance, which he makes through Cryo-Concentration, and ‘Pom’O’ — fortified apple juice, Pommeau-style, but with an Irish twist of ageing in former whiskey barrels and a Killahora twist of adding hedgerow flowers such as elderflower and gorse to heighten their complete expression of place. As is so often the case, the duty ramifications are brutal; not only is the ice cider taxed as a wine, but the Pom’O shares the same duty as spirits. Barry has tried explaining that it is more akin to a Port, but so far his words have fallen on deaf ears.

At my time of visiting they’re a month or so into harvest. Like England and France this year has been a comparative scorcher, with sugar levels off the scale and apples starting to drop early. Kate shows me piles of small baskets, each filled with hand-picked apples, which I’m told are far beyond what they’d usually have expected to collect at this stage. All the family seem to be roped in for harvest; no exceptions made for children or in-laws. A few tastes of fermenting cider and perry — my first 2022s from anywhere so far — suggest a promising vintage ahead if the flavours of the juices are anything to go by.

As the trees mature and the harvest increases the Killahora range is gradually expanding. Bottle conditioned dry ciders; Pom’O made in collaboration with Irish distilleries. Barry, a scientist by trade, is clearly an inveterate tinkerer. As I watch him in the cidery he adds a little fortified cider from an ancient barrel in the corner to his new season ice cider, just enough for extra texture, body and richness. There’s a French-inspired concoction made with Pom’O, dried orange, coffee and cloves; he talks about single varieties and cider brandy, there’s a barrel in which Pom’O and Ice Cider are blended half and half. 

There’s a tangible excitement when he talks about the potential for an expanded range once the orchard matures further. At present some apples are only starting to come through for the first time. This year was the first emergence of Hidden Rose, for instance; Dave tastes his first Hen’s Turd on our orchard walk. (Though I’m not too sure about that last sentence, reading it back.) In five, ten more years the possibilities available to Barry are mouthwatering to think about.

There is a special sort of awe in which I hold producers who are making cider from orchards they have planted themselves. People like Welsh Mountain, like Ross on Wye. Like Cwm Maddoc and Artistraw in the long term, Like Eve’s over in the Finger Lakes. Apple trees aren’t vines; they don’t start cropping in their first three years, nor do they make a product which sells as easily for as much money. The planting of any orchard is with the understanding that eleven years later you will still have trees yet to fruit, or yet to fruit in serious quantity. It is with the belligerent acceptance that some varieties may prove ill-suited to the land, or may rot or blight or canker before they have even begun to yield. It is in the knowledge that after all that, what you will make is a drink still poorly understood, still sneered at in so many quarters and still lambasted, even within its bubble of acceptance, when sold at the sort of prices which, in wine terms, would be fairly cheap.

The work at Killahora is ongoing. The house is built, but there is still construction work behind it. The orchards, for the time being, are on hold from further plantings, but there’s space for more trees in due course. There are groves of oak saplings that Dave and Tim put in, there is tinkering to be done in the cidery. Though the Ice Cider and Pom’O feel established and in their stride, Barry is still tinkering with his creations. His perries are drier than they once were, and lean more towards English than French as his palate and preferences shift. Everything is a work in progress, but there is a tangible sense that they are going somewhere.

Back in Waterford I went into a gorgeous little bakery selling heritage grain bread, pain au chocolates the size of your face and, surprisingly, tucked away in a corner, a modest range of natural wines. Pét nats, orange wines, organic reds and whites. Starting around €24 a bottle, climbing up to €48. I gathered from the friendly team behind the counter that sales tick along quite healthily.

It is this sort of company that people like Killahora Orchards deserve to be associated with. People who tangibly care about land and fruit and sensitive handling and good practice. There is nothing meaningfully different to the way they go about their work, except that apple trees and cider take so much, much more time and heartbreak. The saddest thing of all is that they’re making it an hour and a half away, yet I wonder how many natural wine buyers down the N25 even know they exist.

That’s why the #rethink cider movement of the last three years, the increased advocacy and, yes, the noise on social media is so utterly important. These wonderful drinks and the remarkable places and people behind them deserve all the attention they can get. All the more so when they are not in an established cider region, but are going it alone, somewhere on a coastal slope in south Cork. The world of cider is perhaps the most exciting it has ever been, and people like Killahora are at the heart of it. So keep on shouting. About orchards bristling with colour and life. About ice cider and perry and Pom’O flavoured with hedgerow flowers. About magical apples with pale green skins and flesh the colour of roses.

***

Huge thanks to Barry, Kate and Dave for taking time out of their harvest to show me around. Barry was kind enough to pass on a few samples of Killahora creations, reviewed below.

Killahora Orchards Bottle Conditioned Dry Bittersweet Cider 2021 – review

How I served: Medium chilled.

Appearance: Lightly hazy gold. Sparkling (well-behaved mousse)

On the nose: Brightly fruited – a mixture of yellow and green, fresh and jellied, citrus and tropical. Actually not unlike the profile of some non-volatile Basques. Lemon and lime fruit pastilles. Pineapple and pineapple jelly. Aromatic and high-toned, but with reasonable breadth.

In the mouth: Juicy palate is lifted rather than repressed by fizz. Nibbly acidity buoys a starburst of ripe pineapple, lemon jelly, candied lime. Not the most complex in the world, but tasty fare. Again, like a non-volatile Basque in certain ways, but with fizz. Pretty much totally dry.

In a nutshell: A cider to bring the summer back. Juicy, citrusy, tropical, fresh.

Killahora Orchards Wild Apple Cuvée 2018 – review

How I served: As above.

Appearance: Rich, clear amber-gold. Good mousse.

On the nose: Decadent. Boasts some of the dried fruit, apple syrup and toffee plus concentrated red cherry and berry fruit of good ice cider with ripe apple and rich, deep bittersweet orange. Swaggers into Autumn with those deep, muscular, indulgent tones and a flutter of woody baking spices. Cinnamon bark. Nutmeg. Muscovado sugar. Fruit is both fresh and developed – plenty of years left in this.

In the mouth: Palate is as rich, luscious, complex and deep as the nose suggests. Mouthfilling; just a whisper off-dry, with those deep spiced apple, blood orange, black cherry and hard caramel flavours presenting almost as the marriage of good French keeve with Vermont ice cider – but dry! Lovely ripe tannins; low acidity but enough for freshness and structure.

In a nutshell: Glorious stuff. A storm is blowing outside as I write, but this is giving me a warm autumnal glow. Exceptional cider.

Killahora Orchards Fine Perry 2021 – review

How I served: Chilled

Appearance: Mid lemon-green. Persistent mousse.

On the nose: Stunning perry aromatics. Detail, delicacy, complexity and breadth. Shows brilliant blending; so many of the various shades of classic perries are here, all beautifully expressed – the melon and apricot of Blakeney and the Huffcaps, bright yellow and green citrus, a smattering of herbs and a beguiling rainwater-pool minerality. Very fresh, but with lovely, ripe fullness and juicy, fleshy pear. Wonderful aroma.

In the mouth: And there’s the delivery to match. An absolutely textbook waltz through perfectly-delivered perry flavours; juicy green pear, pear skin, melon, peach juice, the greenery of nettle, lime skin, elderflower, that slatey minerality and a big hit of blossom. The fizz adds to an already-juicy, rounded body; tannin and acidity are perfectly matched, balanced and integrated. Just a touch off-dry.

In a nutshell: Epic. Such good blending. The perfect perry for showing someone what perry, and these perry pears, are about.

Killahora Orchards Rare Apple Ice Wine 2020 – review

How I served: Chilled

Appearance: Dark, rich amber. Still.

On the nose: A deep, indulgent, almost vinous (sorry) and very Christmassy nose; tarte tatin with a charred top. Burnt orange peel, wintery spices, cloves, lignin, dark honey, butterscotch and vanilla. Then a whole mélange of juicy red fruits – cherries, strawberry laces, cranberry sauce. Apologies for the flavour shopping list there, but the complexity and clarity here brings it out of me; something new and delicious with every fresh sniff. Poised, elegant and fresh despite its depth.

In the mouth: Very rich again, in its flavours at any rate. Full-bodied, but not quite so much as some ice ciders, with enough acidity and freshness to avoid being cloyingly sweet. Also not as sticky as some ice ciders despite its low acidity; theres a wonderful fresh juiciness and clarity to the flavours on display here, and very good depth despite apparent youth. Can certainly age, but doesn’t need to. Spiced apple juice, black cherries, raisins and all the spices of Christmas pudding. More vanilla and butterscotch. A little cinder toffee. Those juicy red fruits again, strawberries, cranberries and cherries just driving home the freshness. Superb ice cider.

In a nutshell: A very elegant dessert cider – excellent with puddings I should think, as well as on its own. Not overblown at all despite huge flavours and complexity. A big recommendation and a fabulous treat for Christmas.

Conclusions

I was a fan of Killahora Orchards before I visited, and am even more of a fan now. However, taking a step back from that, these products are nonetheless sublime. I would certainly buy multiple bottles of the latter three were they available, and the first, whilst not in quite the same rarefied sphere, is nonetheless very good and well worth your time and money.

Although they aren’t yet full throttle on the export side of things, I do hope that importers in the UK take note. Others of their creations are available through Cider Is Wine and The Cat in the Glass and I fondly hope that the bottles reviewed here will soon join those ranks. In the meantime, you can guarantee I’ll be on the lookout whenever walk calls me back over this side of the Irish Sea. And I do hope I can visit Cork, and that magical orchard, again soon.

This entry was posted in: Features, perry, Reviews

by

In addition to my writing and editing with Cider Review I lead frequent talks and tastings and contribute to other drinks sites and magazines including jancisrobinson.com, Pellicle, Full Juice, Distilled and Burum Collective. @adamhwells on Instagram, @Adam_HWells on twitter.

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