There is an apple orchard outside of the small California town where I lived as a kid. Each fall, Curtis Creek Elementary would organize a field trip to Sonka’s Apple Ranch (Cover Ranch LLC) where we’d learn about grafting rootstock and the different varieties of apples grown there. At the end of the tour they’d give us glasses of their pressed, unfiltered, dark brown cider as we enviously eyeballed towering tins of their infamous “Mile-high Pie,” wishing for a slice.
I’ve always associated fall with apples. Even though the fond memories of Sonka’s pie and cider still linger, I’m always looking for an adult upgrade. Enter Woodchuck Barrel Select.
Woodchuck Cider popped up in 1991 at a time when pretty much no one was making hard cider. Back then, you’d be lucky to spot a bottle of Blackthorn or even Strongbow; both from England. Woodchuck must have known something the rest of the beverage community didn’t.
As of last year, hard cider production increased by 89% eclipsing craft beer (17.2%), wine (3%), spirits (1.9%) and macro-produced beer (-1.9%) according to ciderjournal.com. Think about that. 89% increase in production to craft beer’s 17.2% despite the proliferation of craft breweries that year (366). And those figures are for off-premise accounts, i.e. retail stores. And those are only figures from the really big cider producers! There are dozens of small-batch companies out there selling local/regional only.
Because of this growth market, the big boys have resorted to their usual “crafty” tricks to keep up. Just as the macro-producers did with craft beer, they’ve got wolves in sheep’s clothing out there posing as real hard cider when it’s really tart, sour, artificially-flavored apple juice. If your cider – or even apple ale – only vaguely mentions a town location without an address, it’s from one of the corner-cutting mega-conglomerations.
Not Woodchuck. Again, they were doing it before it was cool. They do it right and they do it well. 23 years has given them plenty of time to tinker and expand upon what cider can – and should – be. It starts with different varieties of apples, moves to using different strains of yeast to develop different flavors and textures, evolves into putting hops into the juice for an herbal, slightly-bitter counterpoint.
As craft brewers have begun to modify beer in barrels once used for aging spirits, it made total sense for cider to follow suit. The natural sweetness of apples lends itself perfectly to bourbon’s mellow notes. Woodchuck repurposes Heaven Hill casks to create a smooth drink with a Kentucky bourbon dark side. The charred barrels deepen the amber color while lending sophisticated touches of vanilla, caramel and smoke.
The kid in me still pines for Sonka’s apple treats, but grown-up me is deeply enjoying the marriage of bourbon and cider.