You would be forgiven for balking at hard cider. Though it was popular with American settlers centuries ago and is a staple in various parts of Europe, cider’s reputation in America as of late is a little soft: a drink for those who don’t like beer or can’t stomach its gluten. But if you avoid the mass-produced schlock, cider can be a beautiful expression of the fruit. Earthy, sweet, tart, bracing and refreshing, there’s no better harbinger of fall. People are catching on, too: cider sales are booming, in part because Big Beer is jumping on the train, and in part because craft brewers are turning their attention to apples. Like beer and wine (and hot sauce, syrup, coffee, etc.), some of the best ciders are aged in oak to give them structure and complexity. These five are prime examples. They can be tough to find, but they’re worth the search — and you’ll definitely see more of them at the local beer store, farmers market and brewpub in the near future.
Virtue Cider The Mitten
Virtue is a Michigan-based craft cider company run by the former brewmaster of Goose Island Brewing Company, Gregory Hall (who also interned at Domaine Dupont). Their speciality is old-world, farmhouse-style ciders — from English-style draft cider to Spanish-style cidra, made with apples from family-owned, local farms. The Mitten is a “winter cider”, a blend of last winter’s best apples aged for three seasons in bourbon barrels.
Tasting Notes: Mitten is a preposterously good drink, with a spicy and sweet aroma that reminded us of the forthcoming holidays. It balances sweetness and sourness perfectly: fruity, but not cloying; great body, but not too oaky; salty, coconut-y and luscious. We’d drink this all year long.
Traditions Ciderworks Bourbon Barrel
Though Oregon’s Willamette Valley is best known for its wines, it’s also home to some hardcore cider makers. Traditions Ciderworks has its own orchard with 1,200 French and English cider apple trees — Kingston Blacks, Medaille D’ors, Yarlington Mills, among others — along the banks of the Willamette River. The 2012 vintage spent four months in bourbon barrels to produce a cider that’s fruity, floral and sweet.
Tasting Notes: It can be hard to walk the line between subtle and boring, and we were split down the middle on Traditions. Some of us found it complex and wine-like; others, too mild and oaky, without enough of the apple flavor coming through. A little chalky. We’re open to this just being a radically different cider, terroir-wise, than we’ve had before. The jury is still out.
Good Intent Cider North Meets South
Owned and operated by a husband and wife in Gettysburg, PA, Good Intent Cider is (at the moment) available only in Pennsylvania. Fittingly, North Meets South is a bourbon barrel-aged cider honoring the Battle of Gettysburg and made with apples picked in the south-central region of the state.
Tasting Notes: The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but the road to Gettysburg involves a stop-off for some pretty good cider. One taster was reminded of apple-bobbing in Poughkeepsie. Almost everyone found it on the tart side, with plenty of structure from the oak and some good floral aromas.
Bad Seed Bourbon Barrel Reserve
New Yorkers will be familiar with Bad Seed, which is sold at farmers markets in the city. The sixth generation family orchard are located in the verdant Hudson River Valley in Highland, NY, where Bad Seed makes three ciders in small batches. The Bourbon Barrel Reserve is unfiltered, aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels and conditioned in the bottle.
Tasting Notes: While it, too, has good intentions, Bad Seed has a lot of funk on the nose: it smells like expired apples. One taster was concerned that it smelled “fecal”. It grew on us, though, with a really tart flavor profile and notes of citrus, orange jam and grapefruit.
Domaine Dupont Reserve
The only non-American, non-bourbon barrel cider on this list, Domaine Dupont is one of the industry greats against which other ciders are measured. They produce calvados (apple brandy), cider and pommeau (a mixture of calvados and cider) in Pays d’Auge, Normandy, on 74 acres covered with 6,000 apple trees. The Dupont Reserve is made from apples harvested in 2012, fermented in stainless steel using indigenous yeasts and matured for six months in oak casks that previously held calvados.
Tasting Notes: The most refined and Champagne-like of the lot, Dupont Reserve is bone dry and sprightly, with the least residual sweetness. Our crew found it smokey, citrusy, woodsy, herbal and yeasty. One drinker compared it to a saison. Textbook cider. Beautiful.