KILLAHORA Orchard, on the outskirts of Glounthaune, is raised up high, overlooking the Little Island basin and beyond to Midleton.
Wandering the orchard, it’s hard to believe the N25 is a short distance away. A giant oak stands majestically on watch — a guardian that is at least as old at the orchard, one that neither Dave nor Barry knew existed when the land was purchased several years ago, complete with a tumble down house, a barn and a few acres of gnarled and twisted trees.
Dave Watson and Barry Walsh are cousins. Barry talks about apple trees and the vagaries of variety selection, then ensures me that “Dave’s the tree nerd — I’m the drinks nerd,” before disappearing down a rabbit hole monologing on pomology and orcharding.
In just over a year since their ‘Johnny Fall Down’ Rare Apple Cider came to market, it has won international awards, with the duo knee-deep developing a range of premium drinks using the staggering array of apples from their orchard, produced and bottled on site.
The proof is firmly in the drinking — the heretofore limited bottling of their Rare Apple Ice Wine and Pom’O are lusted-after nectars, reaping a much deserved and excited buzz amongst those whose job it is to be a curious imbiber of all things potent and warming.
“For a long time, there’s been a misconception about what cider can be,” says Barry. “In England, the predominant perception of cider has evolved from a pint of scrumpy to white synthetic ciders and now the ‘Bulmer’s effect’ of cider as a drink just for summer.
“We are trying to create something that changes that perception, that cider is a drink for all seasons and full of flavour.
“We are less concerned about what category our drinks fall into. It’s about developing drinks that excite: for us as producers, and for retailers and drinkers who just love it purely on the taste, without us having to explain it.”
The orchard at Killahora contains trees from the original orchard on a site that dates back at least 200 years. It houses old cultivated and Irish native varieties, rare and unique wild apples and crab apples.
In the new orchard, Dave’s approach isn’t to stick to only native Irish apple trees.
“We simply want the best varieties from all over the world, apple varieties that will produce the right profile for the drinks we want to make. There are a number of characteristics we look for in our apples, the four most important being acidity, tannin, sugar and robustness. Get this right and there will always be a good balance of apple varieties for making cider.
“Growing apples based on their rarity isn’t the right choice for us as cider makers. Instead we grow a wide spectrum of apples: French, West Country, European, Swiss, Austrian pears and so on. We created a database of all the varieties that we grow and then started experimenting: if we take ten of these, two of these and four of those, what characteristics will that give to the cider?
“We grow and make within certain parameters of what we know will work. After that, taste becomes the primary decider. Work outside of those main parameters and it is highly unlikely that we would be able to create a drink that works.
“Dave did a huge amount of research of what apples were good for commercial production and then filtered down the characteristics of each one. He used this knowledge to create a planting plan where we knew if all the apples grew and we pressed them all the result would be considered an ideal cider.”
That the orchard contains such a variety is a testament to Dave and Barry’s attention to detail as well as their unbridled enthusiasm for experimenting — taking a chance to see what works but not worrying if something doesn’t.
Modern Vintages of heritage cider apples sit happily alongside older vintage and wild apples unique to the orchard, crab apples and red flesh varieties with hints of strawberry from Kazakhstan, Wales and the USA.
As cider makers, their approach would be more comfortable sitting somewhere between craft brewing and winemaking. Every year brings a new vintage with slightly different characteristics from the previous year: the blend used, the weather conditions: terroir. Is that the challenge then? A re-education about the potential of cider?
“Yes, but that’s the fun and the uniqueness of our drinks — the fact that something different is growing every year in different proportions. Last year we had a lot of bittersweet apples, this year we’ve have a lot of bitter sharp apples with more acidity so naturally we will have a different blend. Craft brewers enjoy huge levels of creativity and that’s what we want to do. So, yes, it is like craft beer in its attempt to do something different, but like wine in the way that it is made.”
POM’O not POMMEAU
French Pommeau from Normandy has a strict Appellation Controlee. Killahora Orchard are producing “an Irish incorporation” that delivers more nuanced flavour than its Gallic inspiration. Partially fermented cider, hedgerow brandy, poitin, apple calvados and some of their rare apple ice wine for sweetness are blended, aged for a full 12 months inside whiskey barrels with a shot of fresh apple juice added just before bottling to vitalise the apple flavour.
“I often get asked how we make the Pom’O taste the same every year when we don’t know what apples we’re going to have. The point is we don’t want it to taste the same every year! As producers, Dave and I have an understanding of what we want to put out — a certain range of tastes that will work even if we are using completely different types of apples. There is a specific ratio of sugar, tannins, acidity and length of time spent ageing that will result in a certain profile of flavour. That’s what we are looking for: taste deciding when a drink is ready.”
It is hard not to draw comparisons to a Master Distiller, constantly tasting and deciding the exact moment when the spirit is ready.
RARE APPLE ICE WINE
The first limited bottling of the 2016 vintage of Killahora Orchard’s Rare Apple Ice Wine was snapped up by those in the know and praise for it has confirmed for Dave and Barry that the effort was worth it.
“We’ll be doing a few thousand bottles of our Rare Apple Ice Wine this year. It’s a hard job to make it right, and we are putting the best of the juice into it. The effort of pressing apples, freezing and slowly thawing so the ice is separated from the liquid we want, increasing the concentration over several thaws; then fermented for six to nine months. It’s about as far away from cider making as we could possibly get, one of the reasons we wanted to call it wine.
“The Rare Apple Ice Wine has hit exactly what we wanted — it doesn’t fit comfortably under any particular drinks category, so when someone tastes it and their response is ‘I don’t care what it is, I just like it a lot,’ that’s perfect for us!”
“Perfecting our Perry and Apple Champagne is our next challenge. It is handmade to the Méthode Traditionnelle — exactly the same as Champagne but without the price tag! We just need to convince people to move away from what they know and try something different.
“We have the trees and plenty of apples, so if something doesn’t work we can just try something else! We’re on a journey with this — we just planted some apple trees and waited to see what would happen. Then we made some cider and waited to see what would happen. Next thing we know, we have a business. Not sure that anyone is as surprised as we are!”