In the Spring of 2016, I headed west one morning from London's Paddington Station, taking the train to Taunton in Somerset near Devon where my colleague Ryan Woodhouse is from. Through a few different word-of-mouth references (Ryan’s family included) we had heard rumors of an English apple brandy distillery that had stocks as old as twenty years and Calvados-like spirits of serious repute. Ryan and I had even spent an afternoon perusing their website from the Redwood City office we share, wondering what the products tasted like. We didn’t waste much time pondering, however. Within a day, Ryan had phoned his dad who was keen on taking a drive to check the place out. By the end of the week we had made an appointment to visit the farm of the Somerset Cider Brandy Company with plans for Mr. Woodhouse to pick us up from the station. Due to a bad leg, however, Mr. Woodhouse was unfortunately ordered to maintain strict bed rest, so distillery owner Julian Temperley himself was there to pick us up from the train station in his 70s-era Bentley on our arrival. With a farm consisting of over 180 acres of apple orchards, Julian has been distilling brandy and making cider since 1989 when he was granted the UK's first ever cider-distilling license. We introduced ourselves, shook hands, and hit the road in style. I could tell from the get-go this guy was a character as he whisked us around hedgerows and through windy country roads, devil may care for the speed limits.
Back at the Temperley home we met with Julian's wife Matilda and were treated to a fascinating lecture on the history of Somerset cider and the importance of its economic role over many centuries. Their country house is one of the most wonderfully-eclectic and artistically-kooky places I have ever been, something out of a late-sixties era Pink Floyd photoshoot (I would later learn that their daughter is world famous fashion designer Alice Temperley, so everything started to make sense). I could have spent days there, reading books, talking about music, looking at art, and hanging out with Matilda, but we were there to discuss business. Cider production in the UK dates back to the Romans, but the West of England in particular has a number PGIs—protected geographical origins—where the orchards are treated like Burgundian vineyards, each with its own particular terroir. Cider and the taxation of it was once quite a political issue (and still is today depending on who you ask). Julian told us of an old 18th century grandfather clock he owns that has an inscription reading: “No excise on cyder.” To say that folks in West England take the production of cider seriously is an understatement. If you’ve ever talked to an Iowan about corn you’ll understand exactly what I mean. Apples are a way of life.
The stills were steaming at full speed when we entered the distillery itself, where my colleague Jeff Jones and I began our tasting. Two wood-fired pots burning away just like I’d seen in Normandy so many times before. The property is delightful; a rustic ranch with hundreds of acres of orchards behind it, each inter-spliced with numerous varietals of apple. We went in the house for a cup of tea first and a chance to sample a few selections while getting a better understanding for the operation. Julian produced a few glasses along with two bottles of pommeau—one labeled Kingston Black Apple Liqueur and the other called Somerset Pomona. “The Kingston Black is the aperitif,” he told us, filling our glass with the chilled liquid. I raised it to my nose and took a whiff. All I could think of in that moment were my friends the Camut brothers who make the best apple spirits I’ve ever tasted. The aromas were just pure and enticing on the nose. “The Pomona is the digestif,” he added. “You can pair this with a cheese plate a the end of a meal like you would a port. It’s been barrel-aged.”
After our introductory course over tea, Julian took us down into the cellar to look at the barrel room. Much like a single malt distillery, Somerset is using hogsheads, sherry butts, and port pipes to age its brandies. The core range includes three, five, ten, fifteen, and twenty year expressions, each with its own unique character. The three year is juicy and bursting with energy. The five year is more subdued and mellow. The ten year is refined and elegant, The fifteen is hauntingly beautiful. The twenty year is rich and robust with notes of sherry intermingling lightly on the finish. The line-up as a whole is a giant slam dunk. The prices are more than reasonable. I was ready to cut Julian a check right then and there. “How is no one selling this in the U.S.?’ I whispered to Jeff.
We've since rectified that issue. The five and ten year old brandies have just hit the K&L shelves, after two years of paperwork and licensing, and both are simply outstanding in flavor and value-to-quality. Most importantly, they don't taste like Calvados or American Applejack, but rather have their own unique character. The term "cider brandy" most certainly applies here as both have warm, spice-driven flavors of pure apple cider in their foundation, bolstered by delicate accents of vanilla from the oak maturation. The five year is simultaneously bursting with apples, while maintaining a mellow and almost creamy finish. The ten year has even more oak, but in addition more of a brown apple note that never comes across overly fruity or sweet. They're both dry and robust, but maintain an incredible elegance from front to back with a slight chewiness from the sherry and port maturation. Considering their price points, I'm already wondering if I bought nearly enough!
Matilda was kind enough to prepare lunch for us, so we sat at the wooden table in the windowed-terrace looking out over the orchards, feasting on fresh bread and local cheddar, while getting to know one another. I did the cheese pairing with the Somerset pommeau that Julian recommended, thinking: “I could really get used to this.” I was also satisfied in hearing Julian’s philosophy on cider and brandy is much like a winemaker's—he strongly believes in blending for balance of acidity and flavor. “Single varietal ciders are an abomination!” he said at one point with a laugh. All in all we spent about four hours with the Temperleys, drinking various apple spirits, eating delicious food, listening to their incredible stories, and enjoying the bucolic splendor of Western England. We didn't stop with just the brandies, either. The Temperleys also make incredible liqueurs using the apple eau-de-vie as a base macerated with local fruit. The cherry and black current expressions were part of our recent shipment and already have the K&L sales staff going ballistic.
It's taken us two years to get the wonderful products of the Somerset Cider Brandy Company to our stores, but it was worth every bit of the effort put in. I've already reached out the Matilda about getting a second shipment ready as I think these are going to blow out of here once the word gets out. These are true farm to table spirits that live up to every bit of the hype.