Place a lump of large ice to collins or rocks glass
Add whiskey, then cider
* * *
I am far from educated on the subject of hard cider; this will become more evident as you continue reading. In my ever-diligent search to provide more Irish Whiskey drinks, I stumbled upon the Stone Fence, which can seemingly be made with every spirit under the sun except for Irish Whiskey or Butterscotch Schnapps (although, that one may not be bad here). The Stone Fence is a wonderfully arcane drink from colonial days and, quite possibly, well before. Whenever it was that man first found himself with both spirit and hard cider in hand, the Stone Fence wasn’t far behind. It has that primal “you got your chocolate in my peanut butter” sense of accidental discovery about it, as if the Green Mountain Boys one day realized that their beloved cider wasn’t providing the extreme buzz for which they were looking.
David Wondrich tells us that, indeed, as our colonial forefathers, especially those in the Northeast, were heavy Rum drinkers and hard cider drinkers, Ethan Allen and crew were certainly enjoying these as they devised new ways to annoy persnickety bunkmate Benedict Arnold. As the Revolutionary War brought blockades of the Rum supplies, the colonists switched to the local brew, which for the North, meant Rye. By the time Jerry Thomas included the Stone Fence in his Bartender’s Guide, it was a Bourbon drink (at least, to Thomas). The thinking behind my inclusion of Irish Whiskey into the mix is that, if people were actively enjoying the Stone Fence from the 1700’s to the 1900’s, surely someone had made one with Irish, at one point the world’s most-popular whiskey. The Irish also love cider – making the pairing with their Whiskey seem natural, or at least, worth trying.
The real trick to making a Stone Fence is finding the right hard cider. Friends Erik Ellestad (in his earlier post on the Stone Fence) and Daniel Berman recommended something French, and rightfully so. Much as with their Calvados, the French make exquisite ciders. The problem facing me was that I had decided upon the drink too late to get to any of the better liquor stores in Los Angeles. Even if I had, hard cider options can be limited. My only local choices were Bevmo or Cost Plus; I opted for the former.
As mentioned in the beginning, I have little experience with or knowledge of hard cider. Before heading to the store, and in parallel with seeking the advice of those I respected, I scoured the Internet. Surely, there was one brand that stood head and shoulders above the rest. Nope. Whereas some people loved Magners — an Irish important and, thus, seemingly obvious choice — others warned to steer clear of it. Blackthorn had its share of followers until it reformulated its product a few years back (which met the same reception, among cider drinkers, as New Coke had). Wyder’s, Woodchuck, Hornsby’s, Original Sin, Fox Barrel — I research them all and for every yeah-sayer, there was a nay-sayer. Ellestad recommended Crispin, a self-proclaimed “Super-Premium Natural Hard Cider”, which does get very good reviews. It went to the top of my list, but alas Bevmo, my store of choice, did not have it in stock. (On a side note: Bevmo, fix that stupid pop-up on your site. It’s annoying and badly coded). I ended up coming home with four bottles: Ace Joker, Aspall Demi-sec, Samuel Smith Organic, and Wandering Aengus Wanderlust.
My experience tasting cider has been limited to pubs in Ireland, where Lesley typically ordered it while I sipped a Guinness or Kinsale Ale (one of my all-time favorites). Following that trip a half-dozen years ago, Lesley picked up some of the Strongbow import but, finding it a pale comparison to the UK stuff, she settled on the occasional bottle of Aspall. One problem we have with the major imports is all the additional stuff — coloring and preservative among them — that go into them. When it comes to cider, there’s something more appealing about the small-batch stuff. Aspall is an old English brand that lists its ingredients as “made with 100% fresh pressed English apple Juice” and nothing more. Excellent, but among the other three, only the Wandering Aengus makes a similar claim — even trumping Aspall by stating “Harvest 2009”. The Samuel Smith and Ace both add malic acid, which brings additional tartness. I have no problem with this, as malic acid is the principal natural acid in cider, but I was left wondering why they needed to bump up their flavors. Oddly, as malic acid brings more tartness to a cider, both the Samuel Smith and Ace also include natural sweeteners.
The important thing, of course was how the ciders tasted — both straight and when mixed. The clear winners were the Aspall and the Wandering Aengus. Whereas the Aspall boasted a funky, fermented red apple quality, the Aengus was as crisp and bright as a green apple. The Samuel Smith was too funky and fermented in profile to inspire much love in us, and the Ace was so light, it almost didn’t show up for the competition. Color and fizz on all four was roughly equal — my untrained eye wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.
In an Irish Stone Fence, the Wandering Aengus was the hands-down winner. Its light, crisp, green apple flavor marries lovely with the Redbreast. I also happened to try a round with some Bourbon, and here, the Aspall shone. It appears that both straight and in mixed drinks, a 100% fresh apple juice cider — and nothing but — is the way to go. Beyond that, it’s a matter of personal preference and, if mixing, the profile of the base spirit.
For some time now , Daniel over at FUSSYlittleBLOG has been getting me in the mood for cider. In Los Angeles, we’re often prone to overlook the gifts of the season, so it’s nice to be reminded of the wonderful things that may slip by as we go about our busy lives. Even if it’s 90 degrees in November (which it is as I write this), it’s comforting to know that a simple bottle of cider or a Stone Fence, for that matter, is all it takes to imagine I’m sidled up next to fire in the Catamount Tavern with Ethan Allen and the Boys.
Esoterica: In preparation for an upcoming punch, we mixed a scant amount of grenadine in with each of the ciders. Across the board, we were in love. In the Ace Joker, in particular, an amazing strawberry note comes forth – almost like strawberry-flavored massage oil. Not that I’d know what that tastes like.