Visiting Somerset Cider Brandy reminds me of Midsomer Murders. The journey there takes you past sleepy picture perfect villages with neatly trimmed hedges, pretty cottages, vistas across The Levels, and just as you turn in there’s a chocolate box perfect thatched cottage B&B. There is an aura of soporific country idyll as you alight.
But as every Midsomer Murders fan knows, behind the neatly trimmed hedges there is plenty going on behind the scenes. And that is how things are at Somerset Cider Brandy (though no murders, obviously…!) which, despite its very rural location has hustle and bustle aplenty, albeit at a relaxed pace.
When I was there, post lockdown reopening was recent, and a steady stream of cider connoisseurs and tourists were stocking up at the cider barn shop where Burrow Hill Farm ciders, cider vinegar, and even a drinkable vinegar are on offer, as well as the spirits. The shop does a brisk trade in spite of its remoteness, and it will be interesting to see whether the recent boom in online sales will now dip, or continue.
Visitors and their dogs sunned themselves beside the imposing facade of the Somerset Cider Bus, while sheepdogs scuttled hither and thither and, in the midst of it all, a gigantic wagon unloaded into the distillery.
On the day of my visit, a huge freezer truck (formerly property of Waitrose) had just arrived on site (goodness knows how it got down the narrow lanes!), purchased to freeze apples to make Ice Cider.
Elsewhere, a party of school children were outdoor schooling with a picnic beside the lake at the foot of the orchards, where they were learning art skills. Matilda (one of Julian and Diana Temperley’s daughters) had arranged for tuition of local children who were excluded from school by Covid-19 restrictions by a hired tutor in a marquee, and this was a day out as part of their programme of activities.
And someone had left the gate to the sheep open – they were lawn mowing in the adjacent orchard, or wherever else they fancied.
You would think that in the midst of this relaxed chaos that the founder of Somerset Cider Brandy, Julian Temperley, would be too busy to devote much if any time to conducting tours. But it soon became clear that Julian is a sociable chap with a wealth of knowledge to impart – and impart it on a daily basis he does, in his own inimitable style.
Visitors should be forewarned that Julian has an enquiring mind, and rarely accepts what he sees at face value. He likes to challenge the status quo in both cider and spirit making, and has no qualms or undue reverence when it comes to presenting his case whether he is obtaining coveted PGI status for Somerset Cider Brandy, or holding his own amongst fellow cider producers, whether large or small scale. His many years of experience have taught him how to play the long game – and slowly but surely, Julian seems to get his way in the end, one way or the other.
Julian feels strongly that Somerset Cider Brandy should be included within the cider industry, as this is how it was traditionally viewed. But others prefer to keep Cider Brandy and associated spirits separate from cider.
Julian argues that the mystique of how apple varieties are blended, making the best of annual crop variations, is as crucial to quality cider brandy as it is to quality cider.
This makes sense to me if you think about how fruit spirits, whether they be grape, apple, pear or even soft fruit spirits are made.
You can prepare fruit for distilling into a fruit based spirit in two ways i.e. by macerating (soaking) it in a neutral spirit, or by fermenting it. Cider brandy is made by fermenting the apple juice into a cider rather than by maceration, so the unaged eau de vie from the still is in effect distilled cider. If you concentrate cider by distilling it, any flaws in the cider will be magnified in the resulting spirit so quality is key, and if you make a top notch cider, you’re well on your way to making a top notch cider brandy. If you are a poor cider maker, you will certainly be a poor Cider Brandy maker also. So the two are inextricably linked. It’s very similar to the symbiotic relationship between quality wine production and quality Armagnac in Gascony, which is why the regulatory bodies for wine, Armagnac and Floc de Gascogne are soon to be located together in new purpose built premises, which seems like sound business practice to me.
My tasting tour began in the cider house shop with the Ice Cider, a concept which initially brought to my mind mis-spent youth supping Diamond White. But this Ice Cider is the complete polar opposite, a dark mahogany fizzless guilty pleasure with sweetness, fresh acidity and tannic bite, intense baked apple flavours and a nutty finish. It is made by freezing cider apple juice before fermenting it into cider, concentrating the apple flavours and sweetness, resulting in an abv of 11.5% abv. Julian added a splash of Apple Eau de Vie, which is crystal clear distilled cider which is rested a little rather than aged. This gave the Ice Cider an appealing fortified wine character – the nearest equivalent I could think of was an appley tawny port. Chilling it a little as you might with a tawny makes it a very satisfying sipper.
We also tried a drop of aperitif Kingston Black, which is apple juice with added apple eau de vie – equivalent in the grape world to Pineau de Charentes, or Floc de Gascogne. Fresh and reviving, it makes a great alternative to Pimms for drinking long with lemonade, fresh mint and fruit.
Next stop was the distillery which now contains three Gazagne continuous stills acquired from Calvados farms in north west France. Josephine and Fifi are gas fired but the latest addition, Isabelle, will on occasion be wood fired using local Somerset oak. The stills all look rather like those of Armagnac, but rather than making a low abv and very characterful spirit as is favoured in Armagnac, Julian prefers an abv from the still of 68-72%, preferring the volatility and elegant lift this provides.
Although distilleries are on the increase across the UK, continuous stills of Armagnac design are a rarity. HM’s inspectors of taxes therefore have a more rudimentary understanding of how they work, much to Julian’s amusement.
Distillation happens from late January and concludes in May after the harvest. It takes a while as they distil 100,000 gallons of cider! Although Isabelle was purchased because the cost of the still was less than the cost of necessary repairs to Josephine, Julian confirmed that their growth necessitates an additional still. When one considers that many small Armagnac producers lack one, let alone three stills, using a mobile roving distiller instead, this is a sizeable investment and commitment to future production and stocks.
Some apples are better for distillation than others. Acidity is needed to promote growth of the most desirable yeast. So heavy bitter sweets and sharps are best, otherwise malic and citric acids have to be added. But in common with Calvados, Somerset Cider Brandy has to use some 20 varieties, even if the proportions are not specified. This is not a haphazard arrangement, the aim being to create a satisfying blend of complementary elements.
Somerset Cider Brandy is not Calvados, of course, the differences in soil type, aspect and climate resulting in two very different spirits. But both are made by distilling cider, rather than maceration, so naturally, when seeking PGI status from the EU for Somerset Cider Brandy, Julian felt it prudent to follow the rules laid down for Calvados.
While Calvados and Cider Brandy are similar in that they are aged in oak (and they have character akin more to brandy than eau de vie), Julian also makes an apple eau de vie as above, which I now tasted on its own, appropriate in that this is the closest of the spirits to the taste of the new make spirit straight off the still. Its intense fruitiness, reminiscent of blanche Armagnac, made me wonder whether a cocktail using the apple eau de vie and a 3 year old Armagnac would work, apple flavours having affinity with Armagnac. But the 3 year old Somerset Cider Brandy would be fabulous too, maybe with some passion fruit juice which works so well with Blanche Armagnac.
Very cleverly, the Somerset Cider Brandy range offers so many permutations for mixologists loving local, whether in bars and restaurants, or at home. Create new flavours by combining them; as above, the apple eau de vie complements the Ice Cider very nicely, and the Kingston Black, Pomona and younger Cider Brandies make great cocktails too, as do the fruit liqueurs made with the apple eau de vie – see below!
We moved on to the bonded warehouse – or so I thought – for there are now two of them, the newer of the two housing newer barrels. There are some 20 years of stocks ageing in these two cider brandy cathedrals. These are dry cellars, and in comparison with Scotch whisky, ageing here is relatively rapid. But Somerset can be a tad damp, and compared to rums aged in the Caribbean, ageing is relatively slow.
Although Julian has been practising his art for decades, Somerset Cider Brandy is unique, and he and the team continue to learn as they go along. They have now decided that American white oak does not work especially well, so many of his barrels come from a cooperage in Montilla, Spain, and have been previously used for sherry. Barrels vary in cost but are all expensive, and can only be used two or three times. Whisky producers also use sherry casks but as ex Bourbon barrels are more plentiful and affordable, sherried styles are a comparative luxury. Julian mostly uses dry oloroso casks, imparting nutty notes. But the 15 year old, named Somerset Alchemy, ages in Pedro Ximenez barrels, which have sweet raisined character.
Shipwreck, on the other hand, ages in new Allier oak from France, giving it smoky spicy character. This came about when Julian came by Allier barrels washed ashore from the wreck of the Napoli at Branscombe beach in Devon and used them for ageing. The result was so successful that he now buys in the same barrels for this expression.
We discussed aeration, where casks are periodically emptied to expose the spirit to oxygen, this being a technique of importance to the ageing of Armagnac in its youth to soften out fiery alcohol. Julian does not practise aeration, observing that it is prohibited in both Cognac and Calvados.
We tasted a digestif, Pomona, which is the aperitif Kingston Black aged in cider barrels for two years imparting oxidative character to it. It was weighty and slightly sweet with orange, spices and marzipan adding to its intense baked apple flavour. It’s unique profile led on to a discussion about cask finishing, which has become very important to whisky, and increasingly also to other spirit categories in the last 20 years.
The SWA rule changes (for details read my piece on cask finishing here: https://winetimeevents.com/2020/06/22/armagnac-cask-finishes-the-beginning-of-the-armadillos/) would seem to permit use of ex Somerset Cider Brandy casks for finishing whisky (cask ageing is traditional for this spirit, and an appropriate ageing period can’t detract from the character of a Scotch whisky any more than say tequila or mezcal, which are permitted), and an affinity with other spirits such as Armagnac and rum could pave the way for Julian’s barrels having an after life in various crossover expressions.
We moved on to the 10 year old, there being no 3 or 5 year olds handy. The 3 year old is the cocktail essential, the 5 year old is strong in flavour with youthful appley freshness, but it is the 10 year old which Julian regards as his “flagship” offering. It is noteworthy that the trend towards quality not quantity in online off trade sales has been borne out here – the 5 year old normally outsells the 10 year old but in lockdown this trend was reversed.
The 10 year old was a golden amber colour with intense tarte tatin and hazelnut flavours and indulgent weight and richness. Structured, yet smooth, and gently warming with a long finish.
We then tasted a future 10 year old, merely 16 weeks into its ageing journey, which will be spent in a French oak ex oloroso barrel. This was darker, dry and intense, with powerful pecan nut punch, raisins, polish and vanilla with baked apple flavours. It was incredible to experience how quickly the barrel, spirit and indrink (i.e. the sherry held in the wood) were interacting.
We moved on from the tried and tested formula to the latest innovation – a Somerset oak expression. This involves distilling in Isabelle, his new still, using Somerset oak to fire the still, and ageing the spirit for 5 years in Somerset oak, coopered by Rodriguez of Montilla. It was an honour to taste this from the cask 16 weeks into its development. 70% abv at the moment, this had a beautiful nose with elegant floral notes of jasmine, as well as cidery character. Even at this stage, hazelnuts and pastry notes were evident with plenty of vanilla from the wood. Thus far it has exceeded Julian’s expectations and it was clear to see that he views local oak as the future.
My tour concluded with a white knuckle quad bike ride past orchards and their fleecy lawn mowers down to the lake where Diana Temperley kindly provided some bread and cheese and a much needed espresso in the shade of their log cabin. She also very kindly gave me a lift back up again this time in the more familiar surroundings of a Volvo.
Julian recognises and respects his role as a custodian of this ancient cider farm, so I asked him about the future. His four children and a host of grandchildren, many of whom live locally, would seem to have secured the estate’s succession. As for the future, they have recently acquired an adjacent field which they plan to plant up as an additional orchard, and they are also planting an oak woodland so that in 120 years or so the cider brandy can be aged in casks made from their own Somerset oak. The business has approximately 20 years of stock at present, and although Julian didn’t say so, I imagine that he might be aiming to increase that given the investments he is making.
While we ate, Julian was taking a keen interest in the activities of his family that day. There were decisions to be made about whether the afternoon would be spent beside the sea – that was until he was told about a tour he had forgotten about, which seemed to settle the matter.
No tour is complete without climbing nearby Burrow Hill. From its summit the extent of the orchards can be appreciated, and the views extend for many miles into the distance. A fitting antedote to the confinement of lockdown.
As I returned to my car, Julian was embarking upon the forgotten tour. As we parted, he jovially summarised my visit thus: “So now you can see that we do things properly”.
In an age where you can now go on a spirits tasting experience where you make a spirit yourself in a couple of hours, the contrast between that process and the investment being made here could not be any greater. The Somerset Oak expression will, in due course, become a product aged in oak grown on this estate. Not only will this impart unique character to the cider brandy, but also, it will help to offset the impact of the cider and cider brandy industry, so vital if we are to head off the threats posed by climate change.
Julian and Diana won’t be around to see how it turns out, and it may well be several generations on before the first bottlings of cider brandy aged in wood from these trees can be enjoyed. But just as Chateau Laubade now celebrate the vision of past generations in planting their own oak forests to age their Armagnacs, which has contributed to their carbon negative status, https://winetimeevents.com/2019/11/21/armagnac-chateau-de-laubade/ I am sure future generations of Somerset Cider Brandy producers will celebrate the wisdom and investment of the current custodians, for centuries to come.
So let’s drink to that with a simple Somerset sizzling fizz: sparkling white wine made fun and fruity with Somerset Morello Cherry Liqueur, made using apple eau de vie. I used Cremant de Limoux, but the Blanquette de Limoux from The Wine Shop Winscombe would work well with its crisp red apple peel flavours. Drop a cherry in to get the fizz going.