[For 9(!) reviews of Somerset Cider Brandy’s range, please see below…]
At the time of posting this story I had previously visited 42 distilleries around the UK… but most obviously I had missed visiting the distillery that’s based in my own backyard, The Somerset Distillery / Somerset Cider Brandy Company Limited not far from Yeovil in Somerset. It was more than time to put that right, and I’m really pleased to say that my 43rd visit was finally sorted recently; I was driving home and passing close to the distillery, so it would have been rude not to pop in really wouldn’t it?!
It was a sunny afternoon in August as I drove through the winding single track country lanes of Somerset. There’s none of the lovingly marked “Passing Place” signs you get on Scotland’s single track roads, this is proper countryside; if you meet something coming the other way then both drivers speed up towards each other whilst trying to get to a wider bit of road before the other driver gets there first, but both usually just end up ditching their cars into the verge hoping not to fall down a big muddy hole. Fortunately I had none of that fun as the local roads were quiet and I could pootle along at my own pace enjoying the beauty of this part of the county.
The drive up from the A303 takes you past villages littered with “chocolate box” cottages (a horrible phrase, but it gets the meaning across) and once you shoot out of the other side of them heading towards the Somerset Levels you get your first glimpse of Burrow Hill (pic above taken by Orange Walrus / Panoramio) and you know you’re nearly at the Distillery and Cider Farm; the signs help too though!
If the drive through the leafy country lanes hasn’t already calmed you down then you soon start to lose any remaining daily life stresses as you enter the farm and drive into the rustic yet well presented farmyard, parking your car amongst the various bits of farm machinery scattered around at the time.
I made my way over to the cider shop… shop is almost pushing it as a description… I’ve been to many a “cider shop” that is nothing more than a standard tourist trap built to cater for mass crowds. There’s nothing wrong with that… but this is the other end of the spectrum, and is rightly mostly described as the ‘ciderhouse’; it’s so much more, and so much better than just a shop. The ciderhouse is one end of a barn, possibly an old grain store, and as rustic as it comes with thick wooden floorboards that all seem to fight each other for space and level. It’s fairly dark, but as your eyes adjust you’re presented with some of the cider farm’s finest products. You have the whole range of their Cider Brandy, along with huge oak casks of cider for those that want a fill up of scrumpy. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of thought and love has obviously gone into this shop and the only apparent nod to technology is a till and credit card machine tucked away in the corner.
I was greeted by a friendly lady who soon went off to find Julian Temperley for me. Julian is the owner of the farm / distillery, and although he gives a fabulous air of country charm he’s obviously a shrewd gentleman who’s won many battles to get the company to where it is today. Julian, who was awarded the Freedom of London in 2009 was in his farmhouse kitchen making a filter coffee and I was shown through to where he kindly also made me a mug before we wandered out into his back garden to check on a couple of craftsmen who were building him a new greenhouse out of huge thick oak beams to replace the previous one that had smashed when a tree fell on it earlier in the year. It was great to just stand and observe the crafts people doing their job in creating a structure that will stand for another 100 or more years.
We ventured back to the farmhouse kitchen and took some seats while we drank, putting the world to rights about various issues on such topics as politics and the recent local flooding that had affected the area so badly, and still continued to affect Julian’s dad’s house. Thankfully most of the cider farm is up on a hill so the flooding that had done so much damage to the local area was mercifully lighter here. To add a touch of the bizarre while we were chatting a rook flew in and flapped around the kitchen for a while, apparently after the old fashioned glass bottle of milk that was sat on the side.
Once our coffees were drunk we headed over to the distillery room. One of the buildings on the site has been lovingly set up as the stillroom, the whole side of which has thick panes of glass so that you can look in and see what’s going on without needing to go in if everything is in full production. Luckily for me spirit production had stopped earlier in the year and we could look inside without a problem.
The Somerset Cider Brandy stills are Coffey type stills, also known as continuous stills, originally designed by Aeneas Coffey in 1830. These are different from the pot stills that are used within malt whisky production, but basically the same type of stills as used in grain whisky production. These particular stills were made in the 1960’s in France before being brought over to the UK. Interestingly Julian pointed out the metal frame that surrounded them and the holes within the frame that would have previously held springs… springs which would have acted as suspension when there were wheels attached, as these were once used as portable stills!
Every day during a distilling run around 10,000 liters of 7% ABV cider goes into the process, and 1,000 liters of 70% ABV spirit comes out. Twenty different varieties of apples are used in the production, all of which come from the farm’s orchards where possible, but are pressed off site. The spirit is filled into Sherry butts, of which Julian reckons around 7 tonnes of apples are used to fill each cask; quite an investment financially, and in terms of orchards, apples and production. There are two stills named Josephine and Fifi.
As we leave the stillroom and head further down the farm towards one of the bonded warehouses Julian talks to me about local cider making legend Frank Naish who recently died. It seems that distilling cider, although largely undocumented was actually quite common amongst the older cider makers, and a conversation between Frank and Julian (where some clear spirit from Frank was handed over) became the source of some of the inspiration to bring this tradition back as a proper business to Somerset. If you’ve never heard of Frank, do read the link above, and if you have time watch the video on this page, it’s a fabulous portrait of the man; Frank was an inspirational guy in terms of cider making, and his death marks the passing of an age.
We walk past views over the county of Somerset with apple orchards nearly laid out down the hill, until we reach the first of two bonded maturation warehouses.
Julian duly breaks the seal and turns off the alarm as we enter into what feels like a very familiar place, a bonded warehouse with all the smells of old spirit maturing away in oak casks, ex Spanish sherry butts to be exact.
The layout is as you would imagine based on a traditional dunnage warehouse in Scotland, i.e. casks laid on their side and stacked up to 3 rows high. It’s what’s known as a dry warm bond which leads to reasonably quick aging. Julian thought that evaporation was around 2% raising to 3% around the 10 year mark… i.e. around 30% loss of spirit over 10 years.
After the recent floods in which the lower warehouse in the local village of Thorney was damaged by water, Somerset Cider Brandy Co. is applying for permission to expand their warehousing at the farm and with being further up the hill it’s a much safer bet and seems a sensible decision.
At this point Julian kindly takes me through most of the core range while we stand chatting in the warehouse. We start by taking a look at Somerset Pomona, a secret blend of juice and Somerset Cider Brandy which is then matured together in oak barrels for a further two years. It’s got a thick dryness, which then turns sweet and buttery… it would go fantastically after dinner paired with a good quality cheese, you could draw parallels with Port here. Julian mentions it’s huge popularity, dropping names into the conversation such as Gidleigh Park and The Ledbury as folk who love and support it.
Sadly because I was driving I could only have the smallest sips of the range, and for the first time ever I found myself having to throw some of the samples away, being tossed over the closet cask.
Further thoughts on the range can be found at the bottom of this article.
Once the cider brandy is ready to bottle it is blended and bottled on site… no colouring is used, but there is a degree of chill filtering, for similar reasons to those in the whisky industry. The farm employs 15 people and is very busy, so much so that they plan on running the distilling side of things for longer next year to try to get stock levels back up… they are dwindling somewhat. Although distillation only happens for part of the year, the general cider making process carries on all year round on the farm.
We wind our way back up to the small shop, where Julian kindly fills the empty sample bottles I’d taken with me so that I could re-try what we’d tasted once back at home. After various purchases had been made, and a kind donation of their Morello Cherry Liqueur had been thrown in, we ended up having a final chat about the long process the distillery had gone through to be legally recognised.
The first written records of Cider Brandy in England go back to 1678, and the Company being granted a licence in 1989 marked the first cider distilling licence in UK recorded history. Julian is quite obviously very proud of this, and of having won a protracted legal battle in Brussels to win a PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) making Somerset Cider Brandy legal in Europe and giving them an “appellation contrôlée”. We chatted for some time about how the Scotch Whisky Association along with others had put up quite a fight, and the various battles that Julian had to fight in Europe, but the outcome of him being awarded the use of the term “Somerset Cider Brandy” was more than he could have ever hoped. Julian is also a proud member of Slow Food UK, which is an organisation that promotes food produced in a way that’s even more organic than organic!
If you’ve ever been canal boating you’ll know the feeling of slowing down and de-stressing as the world passes you by. I had exactly the same feeling whilst visiting the farm… I felt part of something real. They work very very hard to produce their wares, but when Julian described the farm as not necessarily being particularly civilised (as in not very sophisticated, or a little rustic) I had to beg to differ, it felt to me like the pinnacle of civilisation and I’m grateful for spending a few hours in Julian’s cidery world. I’m proud of being from Somerset, for our great cider, and for this outstanding Somerset brandy.
Don’t forget that the farm also produces excellent cider, made in the proper traditional way – unlike many other producers who now buy bulk alcohol and produce products that may only be 35% actual cider. If you’re passing the farm then make sure to pick some up!
Many thanks to Julian for his time… all the more kind considering I dropped in pretty much unplanned and unannounced.
Reviews of the core rage
Somerset Five Year Old – 42%
Colour: Straw golden.
Nose: Clean cider apple goodness with a touch of fudgey sweetness, you can smell the provenance of the cider here.
Palate: Thick feeling with a gentle sweetness, apples gently cooked down with some golden syrup poured over. There’s almost a boiled sweet (candy) type of note to this after a while.
Finish: Easy going, a little pinch of spice, some oak wood lasting out. Fairly long finish.
Thoughts: Great start to the range that I’m tasting here, the youthfulness allows the apples to keep their head up really well. I can imagine this working well with ice on a hot afternoon. It’s a really honest dram. Can I say dram?! I just did. Anyway, I certainly I feel like I’ve had one of my five a day!
Cost: This comes in 3 different sizes… the one pictured is 50cl and is £19.50.
Shipwreck Single Cask Seven Years Old – 42%
Colour: Distinctly darker than the 5yo, a full gold.
Nose: Appley, but there are hints of nuts and rubber notes.
Palate: Apples are dialled back quite a way here with a creaminess and nuttiness showing through along with oak wood after a while, there’s a touch of rubber in the background.
Finish: Some spices and oak coming through from the sherry, brown sherry-sugar sweetness lasting out the spices.
Thoughts: The first fill nature of the cask here shines through to make a really mature dram at 7 years old, that’s why it’s so much darker in colour. A dram with an interesting story behind it, and although the original casks have now gone, they’re buying more casks of the same type from the same place to keep the story going.
Cost: 50cl £29.50.
Somerset Ten Year Old – 42%
Colour: Light to medium gold.
Nose: Light apple with creamy milk chocolate notes alongside fairly light and well married sherry notes. It’s a nose to die for, you could keep smelling this for ages.
Palate: A perfect balance is obvious right from the start on this, there’s a tickle of spice, but not too much to overtake you. There’s a drop of oak, enough to keep your interest, and right there in the back and ever present throughout is the apples. The whole thing comes together in a creamy goodness that feels thick and unctuous on the palate with enough sweetness to banish any harsh tannins.
Finish: Silky smooth finish on the finish, the three elements of apple, sherry sweetness and oak present perfectly into the fairly long finish.
Thoughts: This really is a dram that shines quality at you, perfect stuff. It’s an evening dram that takes you any time from early evening right through to the last dram of the night; it’s got a bit of everything to keep you happy and it constantly reminds you where it comes from with rosy red sweet apples there all the way along. Truly excellent stuff.
Cost: 70cl £35.60.
Somerset Alchemy Fifteen Year Old – 42%
Colour: Full gold, like a late summer evening.
Nose: Very light with the apple notes, the sherry notes coming through so strongly here that you could easily draw a parallel with a heavily sherried Speyside whisky. It’s nutty but the rubber notes found in the 7yo are not there so much.
Palate: Smooth and silky, the sherry not quite as dominant on your palate as it is on the nose. There’s in fact some quite new oak wood sap type flavours, along with some young hay type notes, and eventually older stewed apples come through along with a herbal quality that’s really interesting. After a long while if held on your tongue you eventually get to some milk chocolate notes, little slices of apple dipped in chocolate.
Finish: It almost feels young in flavour, not in spirit mind you, it’s smooth and well aged; the flavour lasts a good long time with stewed sherry notes taking the lead for ages.
Thoughts: The apples here are nearly an afterthought, they are there but you need to pay attention, although once you do you find them there by the shovel-full. The longer you spend with this dram the more quality oozes out from it, it goes on and on with it’s nuances. A 9pm till late type of dram.
Cost: 70cl £42.20.
Somerset Twenty Year Old – 42%
Colour: Dark golden rust like a autumn evening.
Nose: Old spirit shines through, there are heavy sherry notes but the apple has tipped back in the drinks favour. There’s a slight acetone note right at the back that comes and goes.
Palate: It’s rich and thick in your mouth, coating your tongue with sweet flavours of gently spiced toffee apples. There’s oak here, but it seems a little more in balance than the 15yo, and the interesting herbal notes in the 15yo have been smoothed out – it’s not a loss, it’s just different.
Finish: Smooth, subtle and long, you can taste the years of dunnage warehouse maturation as the woody and autumnal earthy notes keep flooding around your mouth for ages.
Thoughts: The oldest in the range, and it’s a stunner for sure. This is your 11pm dram, last of an evening before finishing up for the night and going to bed. It’ll keep you warmed up, smiling and happy, a perfect winters evening drink, complex and deep.
Cost: 50cl £48.10.
Bonus: SMWS Cask 1 Somerset Cider Brandy (distilled 1991) – 48.9%
Colour: Rich dark golden, like the 20yo but even more so.
Nose: Apple and sherry playing nicely together in this single cask presentation, i.e. not blended to give a smoother profile at all.
Palate: The single cask nature shines here, there’s a more up front woodiness along with the higher ABV which makes your mouth tingle a wee bit. It’s very thick with a warming and slightly spicy mouthfeel. Leaving it on your tongue draws out the apples after a while.
Finish: There’s a slight bitter tannin nip before sweetness takes over leaving your mouth salivating for more. It warms your chest nicely.
Thoughts: No bottling date that I can find, but rumoured to be 10yo-ish. A block of ice works really well in this, bloody lovely stuff and incredibly rare – I got mine at auction, the only one I’ve ever seen, maybe I should drink it slower!
Extra Bonus: Morelly Cherry Liqueur – 17.5%
Info: Vintage apples are distilled to produce a delicate perfumed Eau de Vie which is then blended with hand picked Morello Cherries and left for one year to create this liqueur.
Colour: Deep dark red cherry colour.
Nose: Sweet and rich with big cherry flavours. For me it invokes memories of the best Black Forest gâteau.
Palate: Very easy drinking, sweet and richly cherry flavoured with the apple Eau de Vie giving an excellent light background to the drink stopping it from getting too thick and cloying, perfect.
Finish: Sweet and extremely moreish, you hardly notice the alcohol strength so be careful!
Thoughts: “Excellent straight or as a dash added to a white wine, cider, or ice cream.” I’d add to that by saying that I think it would go very nicely with all types of dessert! I could even see it working with nice cold lemonade and a good dash put in.
Cost: 35cl £12.
Willie’s Cacao – Black Pearls: Apple Brandy Caramel’s
These dark chocolate’s are available directly in the farm shop or via their website. They’re particularly grown up chocolates, don’t let the word caramel tempt you into thinking they’re sweet and chewy… The chocolate is 72% cacao solids, so getting fairly bitter, and although the thin caramel in the middle sweetens things a touch the overall chocolate is rich, adult, and sexy with an earthy note. The good thing is that only a couple of the round balls hits the spot so that you don’t end up eating the whole box in one go… although you could if you like! The Brandy adds a nice touch of extra class, but could be turned up a notch further in my opinion.
Cost: 150g £6.
Overall Thoughts: The 10yo is probably my favourite of the range, and I know it’s Julian’s as well, it’s just perfect – the 20yo is amazing, but the 10yo’s got it all – a perfect all rounder. However they’re all excellent in their own way and your likes and dislikes would surely change from day to day. The 5yo is lovely and light, and the 7yo has a creaminess and nuttyness that makes it shine. Don’t forget this isn’t whisky, a 5yo has had plenty of maturation time so don’t discount it as young… in fact there are plenty of other expressions in the range (which I haven’t reviewed) that are much younger than 5yo that are still really excellent drinks, all with their own charm, like the Somerset Pomona (£9.60 – excellent value).
Available: All the above are available directly at the farm’s ciderhouse, or online via their website. Also at various other online retailers such as The Whisky Exchange. If you’re used to the high price of whisky, then do check Somerset Cider Brandy out as it’s a quality product as a lower price point, everyone’s a winner!