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3. Making a living in the countryside
Wilding Cider's eau-de-vie, plus a discount code for readers
Not too long ago, I wrote a feature on Wilding Cider for Pellicle mag that is scheduled to be published later this month. The interviews covered more than I was able to include in the final article. This happens quite often. I’m given a word count and have to work within it. I have to pass over good material if it doesn’t fit into the story.
In my Pellicle article I introduce Beccy and Sam, the couple behind Wilding Cider. I ask how they came to make cider and who they have learned from along the way. And, following Beccy and Sam’s lead, I look at the orchards and their central role in the cider making process. That was already plenty to fit into my allotted 1,500 words.
One thing I had to leave out was the news that the couple are branching out into making spirits. During 2020 they plan to distill 5,000 litres of cider at the Circumstance Distillery in Bristol. This should produce enough for one small barrel of cider brandy, one barrel of pomona, and ‘a little bit’ of eau-de-vie. “It’s as small scale as you could possibly do it,” Sam told me when we spoke in August.
(A quick technical explainer: eau-de-vie is an unaged spirit distilled from any raw material other than grapes. It is usually bottled soon after production to safeguard its aroma and flavour. Once aged in oak casks this same spirit becomes brandy. Pomona is a liqueur made from cider brandy and apple juice, usually aged for two years in oak casks.)
The couple released their first bottles of eau-de-vie, called Orchard Spirit, in October. They distilled it in 2019 from cider they made the year before. “It’s been sitting in a tank waiting for us to sort everything,” Sam says. “It’s been a nightmare deciding what bottles to use.” Of the hundreds of possible bottles available many have minimum orders of 30,000 or even 100,000 units. Sam says this is “more than we'll ever need in our entire lifetime.” They have settled on a simple Calvados-style bottle from France.
In the autumn of 2020 Sam and Beccy will put spirits distilled from 2019 cider into a barrel to age. “We’re hoping to get a Sauternes barrel,” Sam tells me. “The spirits are nice up front. Clean and fruity. Not too harsh.” He hopes they may not need to mature for long. ‘Not long’ depends on your frame of reference. “We were working on assumption that it’ll probably be 10 years, but I think it might be somewhere between five and 10.”
Choosing bottles far from the only difficulty involved with this process. The way Sam and Beccy harvest their apples makes things harder, too. In short, they pick by hand from the ground. Picking by hand is slow enough. Waiting for the apples to fall rather than shaking the trees can mean returning to each one anywhere up to six times. That is a lot of coming and going — Sam and Beccy are looking after four orchards alongside their home orchard.
Beccy tells me they sometimes envy growers who drive a tractor through their orchards and scoop their apples up in one go. “But then we see how much mud gets scooped up as well,” she says. “We have to wash them by hand.”
“Last year we did try a bit of machine picking,” says Sam. “We got one tonne picked by machine, and god it was such a pain dealing with it afterwards that I just thought it’s easier to pick by hand.”
This low intervention approach may be manageable for cider, but it takes a serious chunk out of any profits when it comes to spirits. “A huge amount of apples go into this tiny little bottle. Most people don’t understand that,” Sam says, shifting forward in his seat. “I don’t know of any other cider brandy maker in the world that picks their apples by hand. People will expect [our] prices to be in the same ballpark. If it’s taking you half a day to pick the apples for a bottle of brandy you can’t... that’s just not gonna happen. So far it’s all been picked by hand, so we'll see how that goes.”
The couple grow many varieties of apple in their orchard. One of these is Dabinett. These are more robust than other apples, and better able to stand up to machine picking. Sam says he could split the harvest. Machine-picked Dabinett for spirits; hand-picked Kingston Black and the rest for cider. This would mean less Dabinett left over for their cider. It is interesting to see how economics may narrow the flavour options open to Sam and Beccy across the two categories.
One final difficulty that may rear its head is Brexit. I asked whether the couple foresaw an impact on their business. Beccy was quick to answer with an emphatic yes. “The cost of bottles,” she says, eyes widening. “There are very few bottles manufactured in this country. The price of bottles we buy will go up. Equipment generally comes from Europe so shipping will be a nightmare and it’ll be more expensive.”
It's easy to get lost in the bucolic side of producer stories such as Sam and Beccy’s at Wilding. The romance of the orchards, the low intervention ethos, the return to the land. But that land has to afford producers a living. Sam and Beccy describe theirs as ‘modest’ and ‘meagre’. While they did secure an EU startup grant, they have had no support from the UK government — not even during the lockdown.
“We’re naturally quite frugal,” says Beccy, trying to find an upside, “and because we’re so busy we don't have much opportunity to spend money.”
Sam says he and Beccy reinvest most of Wilding Cider’s income right now. They use the money to buy the next lot of bottles or pay helpers during the harvest. “We always knew until we’re in that rhythm of making the same amount every year, it was always going to be hard,” he says.
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I haven’t tried Sam and Beccy’s eau-de-vie yet, but legendary cidermaker Tom Oliver has. Here’s what he told me about it this week:
Their eau-de-vie was for me, without doubt, the best cider eau-de-vie I've tasted in my life. It was had a fruitiness and a smoothness and an aromatic level to it that I thought was absolutely wonderful.
Felix from the Fine Cider Co has also tasted it and had this to say:
I like to think of Wilding Orchard spirit as a real flag bearer for the wonderful old orchards of Somerset, one of the world's most renowned cider making regions. It distills down the tremendous varieties that grow there and has so many glorious layers of history imbued within it.
To describe it best, I’ll turn to the thoughts of the real experts at Lyle’s restaurant in Shoreditch. For Becky and Sam's first foray into distilling it is incredible! So full of fruit, and so so smooth!
And for me personally, it takes me back to being a child. It evokes apples and pears in the garden having fallen to the floor, giving off thick fermenting syrup to the air, the leaves succumbing to autumn and grass thick with dew, as I try to weave a way through the wasps. It’s not just the apple but the orchard as a whole.
You can buy Orchard Spirit from the Fine Cider Company at £36 for a 350ml bottle. Better yet, Felix is offering a special discount for The Glass readers!
🍾 Use the voucher code orchardspirit at checkout for 10% off orders over £60 until the end of November 🍾
OK, moving on to general business now…
No need to tell you what Richard Godwin’s boozy Substack newsletter The Spirits is all about. Issue #3, The 50:50 Martini, is an excellent read and I thoroughly suggest you check it out as soon as you’re done reading this. For those who don’t know, a 50:50 Martini is a fight back against the Churchill-botherers who like their Martinis made with ‘ice-cold gin, and a bow in the direction of France.’
Dr. Dre spent much of the evening in a roped off area that looked exactly like something in a hip-hop video, only everyone was slightly older. The dinner was: steak. No sides. (“Aggressive!” said a journalist from Forbes. “I like it”). And I ordered a Dry Martini (“Gin please?”) from the free bar and the bartender made it like this: Gin. Ice. Stir. Pour. No garnish.
“Aren’t you going to put… vermouth in it?”
“Nope,” said the bartender.
And I didn’t dare insist. Even though I was pretty sure dry meant a bit of vermouth - not zero vermouth? And, ahem, where’s my olive? But I wasn’t so confident of these things back then and I didn’t want to seem like some sort of Elliott Smith fan. Besides, he exhibited the levels of patience you’d expect from someone who spends most of his time serving Martinis to people whose response to American Psycho was: “Well, it’s Wall Street for me!” He hadn’t seemed too impressed when I asked for gin as opposed to vodka.
So I drank the cold, garnish-less liquor. It wasn’t that nice.
If you sign up for his newsletter (and you should) then tell him I sent you.
Alicia Kennedy wrote about Cognac and vomit for Pellicle mag. It’s a poignant tale of hubris and curiosity, and why she’ll never touch the stuff again.
In France, I’d be in the Cognac region on a press trip with Camus, an independent, family-owned brand. What did I know about Cognac before I went? Just the basics: a distilled white wine; a kind of brandy but with geographical limitations. Hennessy, Rémy Martin—these were the famous brand names. Sidecar—that was the cocktail I could pull out of my hat if you wanted something based on the stuff.
Oh hey, Alicia also has a Substack newsletter. Jeez, seems like everyone is at it these days.
Further spirits news: apparently we’ve all been drinking much more rum since lockdown. This is certainly true chez Gladman, where rum consumption has increased markedly.
In the three-month period between April and June 2020, data from trade body the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) found that 38% more rum was sold than in the same period last year, equivalent to an extra 1.3 million bottles. Total rum sales were worth £119m (US$155m) in the quarter.
More rum fun in the cocktail section below.
Time for a peep over the fence into wineland. Writing in Wine Anorak, Jamie Goode asks whether entry level wines are needed to make wine more approachable to new drinkers.
Should we be celebrating wines that are made in a deliberately accessible style? I’m thinking red, whites and pinks with a sweet fruit profile, and even a bit of residual sugar. Or reds with very soft tannins, and a smooth mouth feel. Easy to drink, affordable wines. Even wine-based drinks with sweetness, fruit essences and lower alcohol.
It’s an interesting question that one could just as easily ask of beer. It’s true that for most people wine is something you have to grow into. Few of us love it from the first sip. But it’s also true that people have been managing to develop that taste for wine for thousands of years without special ‘beginner wines’ to fall back upon 🤔
I think beer has it easier here than wine. There are more styles that could be seen as ‘beginner friendly’, especially now. Just think of all the fruity, low-bitterness beers out there — Pale ales, NEIPAs, and kettle sours in particular. Beer’s many styles and its breadth of flavours means there’s more chance of finding one your first time drinker might enjoy.
Back to beer, and the pub. Matt Curtis explores how lockdown left him feeling anxious about visiting the pub, and how getting his pub legs back improved his wellbeing.
When I returned to London, I felt as though a switch had been flicked inside me. Over the next few days I felt a weight lift. The positive effect visiting the pub had on my mental wellbeing was huge. Slowly but surely I realised just how vital pubs are not just for employment, and supporting a billion-pound industry, but how the social aspect helps us function in the day-to-day. Eventually, the weirdness began to feel a little less-so. With each pub visit my mood was boosted.
Bristol Craft Beer Festival was one of the few to actually go ahead this year, albeit delayed and much changed by social distancing measures. Nicci Peet was there and tells us what it was like attending a party in a plague year.
Everything feels muted: quieter, more relaxed. There is still laughter and chatter but it’s somehow softer, maybe because the music has been turned down. That’s not to say the mood is subdued—everywhere I turn, there are smiling faces, and people talking to their friends across designated tables. Single-use cups start stacking up after being decanted, a visual record of how many beers everyone has tried. And there are still so many yet to drink.
I don’t know what I’d been expecting from a beer festival in late 2020, but the reality is both stranger and more laidback than I’d imagined.
If I told you that someone had brewed a beer designed by artificial intelligence, what style would you guess it was? Yes, of course, it’s a fruity IPA. Ho hum. A Swiss bot designed it after reading the recipes for 157,000 other beers. (Story is in French.) To be honest the main interesting points are a) that it happened, b) that it happened now, and c) that it’s the first time I’ve heard of it happening. So if AI-designed beers become more common in the future, this is the thing I will point to in retrospect to say ‘ah, here is where it all began.’
Another tech-n-booze story: a US startup says they can make aged spirits in days rather than years. Maybe so, but will it be as good, and will people want to drink it? I guess we’ll have to wait and see. At least we shouldn’t have to wait too long…
No link for this next bit but I just wanted to share. TIL, the German for ‘dry-hopping’ is Hopfenstopfen. Isn’t that marvellous!? I’m going to be saying that one at random points in the day for weeks, I reckon. Hopfenstopfen.
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I have a short piece in the latest issue of Ferment Magazine about places that elevate a good drink to a great one.
We each of us hold within ourselves places, with their particular scenery and soundscapes, that we know intimately and like to revisit when we can. But it’s not just the physical place, it’s also beers we enjoy there, and what they represent: indulgence, a moment taken to ourselves amid a busy life.
Read it to find out which place got me thinking about these special watering holes.
I’ve also written recently about beer glasses. I explain how you choice of beer glass affects the way your drink tastes, and which glasses are the best all-rounders for using at home. Because let’s be honest, no one’s going to go to the bother of buying all 20+ styles of beer glass and matching them to their beer every time… right?
I’ve said in the past that tasting notes are boring, and I stand by it. But at the same time they have their place. If you’re studying to become a drink pro they’re essential, but anyone can benefit from writing them. That’s why I wrote a guide to writing useful and memorable tasting notes.
Thinking about buying someone a beer advent calendar? Have a look at this post from a couple of years ago that unpacks these offerings to see if they’re worth the money.
Cocktail time… the Daiquiri
As I mentioned already, my wife and I have been drinking a lot more rum at home than we usually do. (As in some where before it was none.) In particular we’ve been enjoying Havana Club 3 year old in a classic Daiquiri.
At home I’ve been making a very basic version as follows:
30ml fresh lime juice
30ml sugar syrup
Shake over ice and strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with a lime wheel.
I’ve been using a 1:1 Demerara syrup. (Equal weights of water and Demerara sugar heated together until the sugar dissolves. Keeps for up to six months in the fridge.) You could also use simple syrup (the same but with granulated sugar), or even just add sugar right into the glass. But if you’re doing that check how much to use!
Some recipes also call for a bit less sugar; 50ml rum, 25ml lime, 15ml sugar syrup is a good ratio.
The Daiquiri is one of those super basic but classic cocktails that everyone seems to want to futz around with. Probably because whatever you do it’s hard to go wrong.
I’m not a big rum drinker really. We all have a teenage-indiscretion-never-touch-it-again drink, and rum was mine. But even I love a Daiquiri. Like all sours it’s light and refreshing, with a good balance of flavours. You should definitely give it a go 🥂
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