Wednesday 2 September 2015

Dan Kelly's Whiskey Cask-Aged Cider

Previously on Liquid Irish...

If you recall, I ended a post a couple of months back on quite the cliffhanger. Oak casks had been used to ferment cider, emptied, then filled with Irish whiskey for a few months. The whiskey subsequently appeared on the shelves as a Cider Cask Finish. But what happened to the cider??

Cut to the present day...

Enter Dan Kelly's "Full Steam" Cider at last weekend's Irish Craft Beer Festival in Dublin. The blackboard in the photo below tells the story of the apples, the cider, the whiskey and the casks a lot more succinctly than I'm about to. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

In June I joined a tour of the 200-acre Boyne Grove Fruit Farm in Drogheda, the home of Dan Kelly's Cider. Dan Kelly's is the brand but it's a McNeese family business and it was Olan McNeese who steered us through the apple stores, the cider production process, and then out amongst the trees.

One of the 14,307 apple trees, with beehive
Nature has been thoroughly co-opted for this project. Honeybees and bumblebees live in the orchards and take care of pollination. Beneficial predators control insects so successfully that no insecticide has been needed this year or last.

Bramley apples
Best of all, the cider is fermented by wild yeast. The usual way to make cider is to add sulphites that kill off the natural yeast in the juice before adding a cultured yeast to begin fermentation. The advantage is a more predictable result. The disadvantages are the unpleasant flavour contribution of sulphites and their allergenic effect on some people.

Allowing wild yeast to do the job, as Olan does, is doing things the hard way. A measure of consistency is relinquished but the resulting ciders are more interesting.

Back to those casks...

The whiskey company had requested a very tart cider to season their casks. Olan supplied a juice mix of Bramley and Grenadier apples, both cooking varieties. That's fine for a cask-seasoning experiment but it's a tricky starting point for drinkable cider since what you get is lacking in body, high in acidity, and low in alcohol.

Olan took it back anyway, storing it in a large, stainless steel vat where it was undergoing a secondary ("malolactic") fermentation at the time of my visit.

Olan McNeese with the cider vats
The oak casks continued to reside at the distillery warehouse in Clonmel for a few more months, transferring their new, cidery imprint to a standard whiskey blend.

Their whiskey job done, Olan brought two of the disgorged casks up to Drogheda at the end of April.

The whiskey casks at Boyne Grove
Into these casks he filled a mix of ciders. The greater portion of it was the Bramley/Grenadier cider that had returned earlier from the distillery warehouse. To that he added a Dabinett/Bramley cider (the backbone of Dan Kelly's) and a pure Dabinett cider.

Four months later, Olan tapped some of it for the Irish Craft Beer Festival, presenting it just as it came from the cask. In other words, not "back sweetened" with fresh apple juice, or carbonated as many ciders would be. It clocked in at 7.5% ABV.

According to Olan it divided opinion among the tasting public, with some loving it, others finding it too unfamiliar. Apparently the Spanish favour just such a cloudy, uncarbonated, slightly-acetic style.

I became accustomed to the slightly dry catch in the throat and enjoyed two full glasses of the stuff, one unchilled on the first day, another chilled on the last. It would be interesting to revisit it alongside food.

There are no plans at the moment to bottle Full Steam, but now that cider drinkers have had a chance to sample it and venture an opinion, who knows? At least one off license has already offered to stock it.

For Olan, this has been a chance to experiment with cask ageing and, with the knowledge gained, crack on with the next trial of oak maturation.

While we're waiting for that (and apple-picking season is upon us so I'm sure they'll be busy on the farm for a while), we can be getting on with the regular Dan Kelly's cider, an outstanding example of its kind.

Dan Kelly's cider. Standard on the right, the now rare but extra-delicious "Fiona's Fancy" on the left.