British cider spirit: a spirited comeback

Oli Dodd charts the fall and rise of apple brandy as a handful of UK distillers revive an ancient category.

Before the gin craze swept across Britain in the early 18th century, apple brandy was popular across the orchard-rich regions of southern England. By 1710, it was a category established enough to have warranted its own tax bracket just as gin’s omnipresence would cast it into obscurity, where it would remain for centuries.

It was an unusual lost tradition. Globally, apple spirits have endured, notably calvados in Normandy and applejack in the US. Whisky is essentially distilled beer, so it’s no surprise the two industries became concurrently popular on the British Isles, but given that the UK consumes more cider than any other – 38% of all cider consumed globally according to the most recent data released by the National Association of Cider Makers in 2019 – why does such a small fraction of fermented apple juice end up in a British still?

“We’ve got records going back 300 years, and at that point cider and distilling were always mentioned on the same page, so Somerset cider brandy was always a drink, we’re not doing anything new here,” says Matilda Temperley, managing director of Somerset Cider Brandy, whose father Julian is credited with resurrecting the industry and in 1989 became the grantee of the UK’s­ first ever full cider-distilling licence. Today the brand’s cider brandy is the only English spirit protected by a PGI.

“But at some point, the UK got puritanical and taxed the distilleries who all disappeared behind the hedges,” continues Temperley. “Even recently, some of the old boys in the cider industry know more about distilling than you would expect them to. So, I think it was something that people have done more recently on a small, local scale and I think that would have been the same in the past, where everyone would have had a cider press on their farms in Somerset and plenty of people would have experimented with distilling.

“Really, distilling cider in the UK was brought back by Bertrand Bulmer of the Hereford Museum, but it was only ever under a museum licence. Then in 1987, we managed to get a museum licence with [Bulmer’s] blessing and then we got fully the ­first commercial licence since in 1989.”

The story behind the disappearance of British cider spirit has its origins in that aforementioned tax bracket, but also in the gin craze that buried it. As a result of gin’s reputation as the cause of all manner of social ills, the government brought in the Tippling Act of 1751, which regulated the distilling of ‘spiritous liquors’ by requiring distillers to purchase an annual licence and prohibiting them from selling directly to customers and allowing the consumption of liquor on their premises.

“All of our European customers would say ‘why don’t you just distil things?’, but it took my father a long time to ­fight for a licence and Customs were deeply suspicious,” explains Temperley. “We used to have to keep the still three miles away from where we made our cider and we used to have to send our barrels to be held in a commercial bond elsewhere.”

Distilling suppressed

Will Edge, founder of Greensand Ridge, who makes an apple spirit using surplus produce from local farms continues: “It’s really all to do with money. The control of excise duty, no matter what country you’re in, has a lot of zeros behind it. If you want to raise duty and excise tax, controlling the industry by only licensing businesses that you know you will be able to monitor and get your cash from is a good way to do it.

“The result is, in the UK, home and village distilling has been suppressed, in some ways to bene­fit the whisky industry, but the result is gin and whisky are held up on a pedestal, which is an unusual situation compared to our fruit spirit-drinking European neighbours. As a producer, it’s harder to produce these spirits because there isn’t a huge domestic market for it.”

In the UK, distillers’ licences are controlled by the tax authority, the HMRC, who make the licence notoriously tricky to obtain for small-scale producers, although this process was made less impossible in 2009 when the HMRC’s interpretation of the law changed to allow alcohol to be distilled in small batches, kicking off a national craft distilling boom.

“When I was a kid, the customs officers used to come almost once a week, it was intensely monitored. Now if we ask for another still they’re very happy for us to get one,” says Temperley. “The laws around distilling have become a lot more relaxed and it’s now really conducive to having an artisan distillery movement in UK.”

But now the culture has changed, while it may be easier to distil apples on a small scale than previously, as a nation the appetite isn’t what it was and that’s another big hill to climb.

“The long history of distilling in this country is really unique in the whole world because we’ve kind of been encouraged to forget about fruit spirits as a category,” says Edge.

“You only need to go across the channel and you hit calvados country, and then you’re into France and Germany, where they love fruit spirits. In France, it tends to be more infused fruit spirits, like Mirabelle plum liqueur, and then Germans and Austrians love fruit schnapps. Into Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland and Romania, there’s plum brandy or slivovitz and various pálenka fruit spirits in Czech Republic and Slovakia. In this country, if you ask someone what gin drink you can have before dinner, 99% of people would say a gin and tonic. If you say how do you drink apple brandy, people will just look at you blankly.”

To start from scratch isn’t exactly plug and play. Greensand Ridge avoids the need for an orchard by only using surplus apples, and many existing apple spirit producers were cidermakers first.

“The difference between making a gin versus a spirit out of apples that needs ageing for at least three years is vast,” says Temperley. “Our stock rotation here is 25 years and when we’re planting the trees, that’s another 20 years, so really, we’re on a 45-year cycle. Cider brandy is such a wonderful thing but to do it properly, it’s not something to get into quickly. You’re thinking the same way as Scotch whisky but adding on 20 years of planting.”

The Somerset Cider Brandy Company achieved its PGI status by doing things properly. Its brandy must be distilled from cider produced only from fresh-pressed juice from at least 20 varieties of traditional Somerset cider apples. Then the distillate must mature in oak for a minimum of three years and be bottled within Somerset. But that’s not to say there aren’t shortcuts for existing cidermakers looking to diversify into cider spirits.

“I don’t think there’s an awareness that there are people out there who could offer contract distilling services,” says former cidermaker Laurence Conisbee, who founded Wharf Distilling in 2011. “It’s more difficult to get a full distilling licence as opposed to the recti­fier’s license you need for making gin. But I think it’s very surprising to not see more cider spirits with the sheer volume of new distilleries that have started up recently.

“Our main business is contract distilling, we produce around 70 products for around 40 brands, and we do offer distilling services to cidermakers to produce apple spirit, but I’m surprised there aren’t more craft cidermakers who are trying it. We can make a small batch with as little as 100 litres, among the 400 small craft cidermakers [in the UK], unquestionably some will have cider that they can’t sell commercially because it’s got mouse [a common bacterially-produced fault in ciders] or started to acetify, but for us that’s a perfect opportunity to use what would otherwise be considered a waste product.”

Digging into the story of the resurrection of apple spirit in the UK by a handful of producers quickly reveals a far bigger picture. One of a suppression of distilling practices almost lost to the mists of time due to a heavy-handed taxman who kept a storied tradition from returning into the culture.

But finally, through the perseverance of a small class of distillers, the once forgotten category has every chance of making a comeback.