February 22, 2020
When you come to visit us in Ballyduff, you will see a rather lovely stained glass window by Cork artist Peadar Lamb. When we started planning this distillery back in 2017, we made a list of all the things that made the Blackwater valley special, then we commissioned a piece to celebrate it. On the widow are three apple trees, because this is the spiritual home of Irish cider.
Just as the Victorian era took Irish whiskey to its heart, this too was the golden age for Blackwater ciders, and just up the river from us you can still see the foot print of an enormous cidery.
Nowadays Irish cider is enjoying something of a revival, despite the system here being stacked against Irish cider makers. They don’t get the duty breaks given to craft brewers for a start. So when Dungarvan finally got its own cidery, we knew we just had to collaborate with Liam from Legacy Cider.
The idea was simple. Work with a local cider producer to produce a local apple spirit. It’s not an original idea, across the county line in North Cork, Longueville House is home to Ireland’s oldest craft distillery and since the 1980s, they’ve been producing a delicious Irish apple brandy. More recently in the orchards of south Kilkenny, Highbank have been making apple based gins and brand(e)y. That bracket is important because it’s an Irish solution to an Irish problem. The term brandy is protected in the EU and can only be applied to wine based spirits (the honourable exception being Somerset Cider Brandy.) The French have got around this with a GI to protect Calvados, apple brandy from Normandy. In Ireland apple based spirits are even more neglected than straight up cider.
So here we can’t call our apple spirit either Calvados or Apple Brandy (though we might), it’s ‘cider spirit’ but as you can see in Ireland when it suits us, we don’t take much notice of the law.
So what’s going in the bottle? We don’t have an orchard, so we decided to move away from using a variety of apples and unlike the other producers, work with a single local heritage apple.
Fermentation was straight forward; no added sugar and a long fermentation which resulted in cider at just over 6%. Then came to fun bit. Our copper pot stills are very flexible, and were initially designed to make grappa – so this was their chance to shine.
First distillation was pretty straight forward, just strip all the alcohol down to 1%.
Second distillation was more nail shredding. Our Head Distiller has previous here, having produced two Apple brandies state side, so he was well prepped if just a touch nervous. The first cut on any new spirit is daunting, but more so when dealing with fruit. Whiskey cuts are narrow, apple spirit cuts are wide and that’s where you can hit issues. That scent of freshly peeled apple lives quite high in the run, just after the not-so-wonderful tang of nail varnish remover. So the heat was dialed down, while the coolant in the reflux ball was turned up (told you we had cool stills) and the spirit directed into the shell & tube condenser (we can also use a worm – did I mention how cool our stills were?)
Then John took up residence under the spirit safe, glass in one hand, alcohol meter in the other. And waited. And sniffed. And tested. And waited some more.
When the moment came the cut was clean, the acetone evaporated and the orchard tumbled into the distillery – as it turned out the cut came 2 minutes after John predicted.
Now apple spirit is not our core product, we only took a week out to play, to find our way. So we ended the experiment by producing ‘Queen’s Share’, that is where you put all the left over feints into a smaller still, run it slowly, compress the distillation and extract only the choicest core. It’s like squeezing the apple, the Queen’s share is then added back to the new make.
Calvados is aged for a minimum of two years, which is sensible. Apple spirits are quite different to grain based distillates, so less wood contact can be a benefit as you don’t want to swamp the lighter apple compounds. So next week our spirit will hit the wood. Right now I can’t say now with any certainty what those casks will be (we are still debating that); we still don’t know when this product will hit the shops, so let’s just say it will be ready when it’s ready. However this is something we will do again, and next time the apple season will be longer than a week.