Wakefire

Maker: Blake’s, Armada (ar-MAY-duh), Michigan, USA20170705_162046

Style: Dry apple cider with cherries & orange peel

ABV: 6.5%

Price: $10/six pack of cans (Binny’s)

Appearance: Orange light bubbles.

Nose: Apple juice with a squirt of black cherry.

Palate: Medium bodied. Crisp apple, hint of cherry juice and citrus.

Finish: Biggest cherry flavor is here. A little citrus identifiable as orange peel when I look at the can.

Parting words: I bought Wakefire to have a flavored cider option at my annual Michigan-themed party in June. It was the more popular cider, even over a high quality dry cider also in a can. I didn’t get a chance to taste it that day, but I did later and I understood why. It’s easy drinking, but with enough flavor to avoid being dull. The cherry and orange peel are barely there, but I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. If the can says it has certain flavors, I expect those flavors to be present, but I also don’t enjoy ciders with too much flavor. If I ever resolve that conundrum, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, Wakefire is recommened.

Potter’s Farmhouse Cider

Maker: Potter’s Craft Cider, Free Union, Virginia, USA20170428_091604

Style: Medium dry

ABV: 8.5%

Price: $13.50 (Glen’s Garden Market, Dupont Circle, Washington, DC)

Appearance: Medium gold, moderate carbonation.

Nose: Cut applewood, pear, applesauce, pineapple.

Palate: Medium dry. Mineral, apple blossom honey.

Finish: Clean and crisp.

Parting words: The last time I visited DC to visit my sister and her family, I decided that I wanted to pick up some Virginia wine to take back home and possibly review. I found Glen’s Garden Market (on a recommendation from blogger Obi-Wine Kenobi) in Dupont Circle and decided to stop in there. It’s a cool place with an excellent selection of local products including Virginia wine, but I ended up buying a Maryland red, Long Island rosé and this Virginia cider instead!

Potter’s has a wide and eclectic range of ciders. Farmhouse dry is the flagship. It’s dry without being austere and fruity without tasting like something with Mott’s on the label. The company was founded by a couple of Princeton classmates who stumbled upon the beauty of cider while homebrewing.  This is a very good cider with broad appeal. Good at the table too. Potter’s Farmhouse Cider is recommended.

Uncle John’s Perry

Maker: Uncle John’s, St. John’s, Michigan, USA20170302_115559.jpg

Varietal: 100% Bartlett

Style: Dry Perry

ABV: 5%

Price: $11/750 ml (Binny’s)

Note: Note: At the time of purchase, I received a complimentary bottle of Russet cider and of Uncle John’s Apple Brandy.

Appearance: Bright yellow with a big fizzy head.

Nose: Fresh cut pear, golden delicious apples, kiwi, papaya.

Palate: Dry and effervescent. Pear peel, Meyer lemon, leather mineral water.

Finish: Drying and slightly tart.

Parting words: Uncle John’s Perry is part of their line of premium ciders including Russet (blend of Russet varieties, with Golden Russet making up the majority), Melded (a blend of English, French and American heritage cider apples), and Baldwin (single variety cider from Lake Michigan Shore apples).

This perry is a source of pride for Uncle John’s co-owner and operator Mike Beck. It’s easy to see why. Many perries taste and smell like fermented syrup from a can of pears. This perry is beautifully dry and gently tannic, all made using Bartlett, the same variety of pears that end up in the can! Mike told me that there are heirloom pear varieties that are intended for use in perry but they are even harder to find than cider apples. If anybody reading this has more information about perry pears, please comment!

Anyway, this is the best perry I’ve ever had. It made me rethink the category as a whole. America needs more good perry! Uncle John’s Perry is highly recommended.

Cider Rosé

20161210_161342.jpgMaker: Uncle John’s Fruit House Winery, St. John’s, Michigan, USA

Apples: Geneva, Redfield, Watermelon, Niedzwetzkyana, others.

Style: Dry rosé cider.

ABV: 6.7%

Price: $18/750 ml (I think)

Note: At the time of purchase, I received a complimentary bottle of Russet cider and of Uncle John’s Apple Brandy, plus a discount on this bottle and others I purchased.

Appearance: Medium pink with moderately large bubbles. Big champagne-like head at first, but it dissipates quickly.

Nose: Sandalwood, ginger, apple.

Palate: Dry and medium bodied. Slightly tart but grows as it warms. Cardamom, ginger, papaya, watermelon, pomegranate, Granny Smith apples.

Finish: Applewood, big chewy tannins.

Parting words: This is a true rosé cider made from red fleshed apples, not turned pink by the addition of grape juice or something else. It’s firmly in the dry, structured, style of Uncle John’s specialty ciders. More tart than Uncle John’s Russet, it’s closer to Melded but the acid isn’t so much citrus as it is tart apples and pomegranates.
It’s fine with food, but Cider Rosé may clash with acidic salad dressings or cabbagey vegetables.

Uncle John’s Cider Rosé is recommended.
My visit to Uncle John’s Fruit House Winery & Cider Mill is chronicled here.

Atomic Apple Hard Cider

Maker: Uncle John’s Fruit House, St. John’s, Michigan, USA20161003_171139.jpg

Style: Hard cider flavored with cinnamon candies.

ABV: 6.5%

Price: $11 (Binny’s)

Note: At the time of purchase, I received a complimentary bottle of premium cider and of Uncle John’s Apple Brandy. I got a 30% discount on the rest of my purchase.

Appearance: Nearly fluorescent pink. Lots of fizz.

Nose: Apple juice, hint of cinnamon.

Palate: Apple sauce with red hots, flint.

Finish: Cinnamon candy, then dry. Goes quickly.

Parting words: The last cider I reviewed was Cinnamon Girl from Left Foot Charley. That was flavored with single origin cinnamon from two different places and no sugar was added. Uncle John’s took a completely different approach to creating a cinnamon hard cider. They threw a bunch of Atomic Fireball candies into the fermentation tank. The result is something like when my grandmother made applesauce and put red hots in while it was cooking. I enjoyed the flavor then and I enjoy it now, but it’s not as nuanced as Cinnamon Girl. Atomic Apple is cheaper and still pretty good, though. All that said, my wife hated it. Atomic Apple is recommended.

Cinnamon Girl

Maker: Left Foot Charley, Traverse City, Michigan, USAwp-1474425628803.jpg

Apples: Northern Spy, Golden Delicious, Ida Red.

Style: Apple cider with Sumatran and Vietnamese cinnamon (no sugar added).

ABV: 5%

Purchased for $8/500 ml (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room)

Appearance: Very pale gold, slow bubbles.

Nose: Cinnamon Toast Crunch Cereal, apple sauce.

Palate: Crisp and acidic, then the cinnamon kicks in.

Finish: Some tartness and cinnamon, then elegant tannins.

Parting words: Left Foot Charley might be Michigan’s best winemakers, and their ciders are very good too. Cinnamon Girl is better than most spiced ciders because the spice doesn’t cover up any of the apple character. No traditional cider apples were used in its production but there’s just the right amount of tannin, tartness and sweetness to balance the spice and bring it all together. Cinnamon Girl is recommended.

Uncle John’s Russet Hard Cider

knobby_russet_28520725866329
Knobby Russet apples

Maker: Uncle Johns, St. Johns, Michigan, USA

Apples: Golden Russet, Razor Russet, Knobby Russet and Baldwin.

ABV: 6.5%

Price: $13 (Binny’s)

Note: At the time of purchase, I received a complimentary bottle of this and of Uncle John’s Apple Brandy.

Appearance: Medium gold. Persistently effervescent.

Nose: Cut apple core, sweet cinnamon, old oak, green cardamom.

Palate: Medium dry and chewy. Apple juice, big tannin, tart cherry juice, seasoned lumber.

Finish: Dry, bitter tannins that linger in the cheeks.

Parting words: My visit to Uncle John’s Fruit House Winery & Cider Mill is chronicled here. This is the second of Uncle John’s premium ciders I’ve taken notes on for this blog. The first one I took notes on was Melded, a delicious blend of American, British and French cider apples. That one had tannins and minerals but on a bed of citrus. It was very food friendly and refreshing. I planned on highly recommending it, but I lost those notes due to poorly designed word processing software. I’ve begun handwriting notes so that doesn’t happen to me again.

Russet is different from Melded. There’s plenty of fruit here but it’s all apple and it’swp-1473194518713.jpg wrapped in a chewy, tannic package. It works well with food too, but the tannins are leading the charge here with fruit and acid playing backup. It’s a very good cider and leaves me excited to try the rest of the premium line that I have haunting my cellar.Uncle John’s Russet Hard Apple Cider is highly recommended.

Knobby Russet photo by Leslie Seaton from Seattle, WA, USA – Knobby Russet, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33881166

 

 

Vander Mill Ginger Peach

Maker: Vander Mill, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USAwp-1471352720002.jpg

Style: Apple cider with peach juice, ginger juice and sugar.

ABV: 6.9%

Price: $11/4 pack of pint cans (Binny’s)

Appearance: Bright gold.

Nose: Light ginger, golden apple, peach nectar.

Palate: Medium bodied, medium dry and well-integrated. Tart with a little tannin. Fresh cut peach and a pinch of ground ginger.

Finish: Much bigger peach in the finish. Dry, underripe peach. Lightly lingers.

Parting words: At the annual early June party my wife and I host, I went with an all Michigan theme. I wanted to make sure there was cider there since I like it and like variety. I also bought a six pack of Beard Bender dry cider from Blake’s. I assumed the Blake’s would go quicker, but Ginger Peach did. After tasting it, it’s easy to see why.

When making a fruit flavored cider it is critical that the cider base is of good quality. When it’s not the fruit element has to be increased to hide the flavor and the whole thing ends up being cloying and gross. The best flavored ciders, like this one, let the tannins and apple character come through while harmonizing with the flavorings. Ginger Peach goes well with food, too, especially grilled meats and South or Central Asian food. Ginger Peach is recommended.

A Visit to Uncle John’s Cider Mill

wp-1467152228478.jpgUncle John’s Cider Mill/Uncle John’s Fruit House Winery is in St. John’s, Michigan 31 miles north of Lansing, about a one and a half to two-hour drive from Metro Detroit.  The Cider Mill has been open to the public since 1971 but the Beck family has owned a farm in that location for five generations, growing fruit and vegetables. Their current business is typical of many destination-type cider mills around the Midwest. Cider, doughnuts, pies, jam, farm stands, kids recreational area, local bands, car shows, bicycle races and the like. They have also made wine for many years as Uncle John’s Fruit House Winery. A red and white blends are made but most of the wines are fruit-flavored or 100% fruit wines. They make Concord grape, cherry, cranberry and sparkling peach wines, Cyser, and Pyment.

wp-1467151820634.jpg
The bouncing area.

Apples have always been grown by the Becks on their farm and according to Mike Beck, current co-owner and operator, apples are where their hearts are. They started selling hard cider to the public in 2002, back when cider was small. They were already focusing more on fruit wine, so moving to hard cider was an easy transition. They were one of the first commercial hard cider producers in Michigan so they got a solid head start on the cider boom. They are also one of the few producers nationwide to grown their own fruit. According to Mike, many of the cideries in the Pacific Northwest don’t grow any of their fruit and know little to nothing about growing apples. Uncle John’s takes pride in their long standing “relationship with the apple”. They have 80 acres of apples on site and own another 80 acres of orchards in West Michigan. Uncle John’s also sources fruit from as far north as Leelanau and as far south as St. Joseph’s. There are subtle differences between northern and southern fruit, Mike explained. The northern apples tend to be more acidic (and prettier) and the southern tend to be sweeter. Mid-Michigan apples are the perfect balance of the two (of course).

Mike’s training was almost entirely on the job. He was operating the cider press by the time he was nine years old. He has also studied at Michigan State University and spent time at Black Star Farms, Fenn Valley, and St. Julien, which he praises for their commitment to helping anybody involved in producing wine, cider or spirits in Michigan.

wp-1467152009124.jpg
A glass of Atomic Cinnamon

When I arrived, Mike took me through the highlights of their canned ciders and then their premium line. We started with the semi-dry flagship cider (reviewed here in its former can design), a favorite of mine. We then moved onto the cherry which was good, and then the apricot which was very good. The Cherries for the former are estate grown, but the apricots are not (although they are from Michigan). Blueberry, cranberry and pear fill out the rest of the line of fruit flavored ciders. If I recall correctly, the blueberries are Uncle John’s own. The pears are Michigan grown as are some of the cranberries. Getting all Michigan cranberries is harder than it may seem. Michigan is a major producer, but they belong to the big interstate cranberry co-op as soon as they are harvested and are all pooled together.The co-op assures Mike that there are some Michigan berries in the mix. The odd ball (no pun intended) of the canned cider line is Atomic Cinnamon. It’s the standard apple cider infused with Atomic Fireball candies. A review of that one will be coming in the near future. In addition to those, they have cider cocktails available at the tasting bar. When I was there, they had their own version of a spiced Spanish cider punch. It was tasty.

The canned ciders are good family fun (if your family is all over 21) but the premium ciders

wp-1467152097116.jpg
Canning cider

seem to be what Mike’s most proud of. They’re all on the dry end of the scale and are all excellent. He said he doesn’t have any particular regional style (English, Norman, etc) in mind when he makes these, he just lets the fruit lead the way. I tasted Melded (a blend of

wp-1467152485191.jpg
The ones I took home

English, French and American heritage cider apples), Russet (blend of Russet varieties, with Golden Russet making up the majority), Baldwin (single variety cider from Lake Michigan Shore apples), and the award winning perry (from Bartlett pears; they’re especially proud of this one). Look for reviews of the first two and the perry in the next few months. The two I didn’t taste were American 150 (blend from 150 y/o+ cider apples) and Cider Rosé (made from all red fleshed apples). I did pick up a bottle of Cider Rosé, though so expect a review of that one too!

I asked about whether they had plans to make an ice cider, like the one made by Blake’s wp-1467151916789.jpg(reviewed here). Mike didn’t seem to be interested in the idea. He poured me some of their apple dessert wine and said he was fine with that one occupying the sweet end of their range. It’s a fortified wine made using spirits distilled from Uncle John’s own fruit. It was cloying and unrefined but drinkable. I hope Mike reconsiders. I would love to see his considerable skill applied to an ice cider.

Uncle John’s produces spirits too. Mike informed me that their pot still used to be at their facility in St. John’s, but when they expanded it was moved to Red Cedar distillery down the road in East Lansing. When I asked if Uncle John’s spirits were contract distilled, Mike replied, “We don’t actually have a contract, but they do it for us.” Mike oversees the spirits production, but doesn’t distill any of it himself, allowing the expert staff at Red Cedar to do that.

wp-1467151958933.jpgThey are currently selling two spirits, an apple vodka and an aged apple brandy. The apple vodka is surprisingly flavorful, tasting more like apple eau de vie than vodka. “I know it’s supposed to be flavorless but…” It made a good sipping vodka, but I didn’t try it in any cocktails. The vodka is made in the big column still at Red Cedar.

We then moved on to the really good stuff, apple brandy. They have twelve barrels aging at the Cider Mill. They have two different types of barrels to age their brandy. Some is aged in toasted French oak (in barrels intended for Calvados) and some in Michigan oak barrels, also toasted. The Michigan oak barrels were sourced by St. Julien’s to be distributed to wineries across the state. Mike prefers the French oak barrels but again credits St. Julien’s with doing a good thing for wineries in the state by facilitating the use of home grown wood in wine and spirits production. It’s a cool thing for a Michigan producer to be able to say that your product has been aged in Michigan oak. Uncle John’s has barrels of brandy as old as 12 y/o but what gets bottled is 2-6 years old. It’s only sold at the tasting room and at a couple restaurants in Chicago. It’s sold in 375 ml bottles. I received a complimentary bottle of the brandy, so watch this space for that review too.

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Mike and his barrels

Uncle John’s has more spirits in the works. They are currently working with Red Cedar to develop a gin using their apple vodka as a base. Mike also said they have two barrels of whiskey aging. When I asked him what style they were he said, “I don’t know.” The whiskey originally belonged to Michigan Brewing Company. Uncle John’s was forced to take possession of it in MBC’s notorious bankruptcy. If it turns out to be any good, it will be released.

They have a cozy tasting room with bar for tasting or just buying a drink. As is usually the case, the tasting room also contains a shop. All their ciders and spirits are sold there along with apparel and locally made snacks and other products. A pleasant-looking patio is outside. Uncle John’s is a bit of a hike to be a regular hangout for me, but it looks like it would be well worth the drive from Lansing to spend a warm summer evening relaxing with a glass of cider. Even if you aren’t close, a visit is recommended. Big thanks to Mike Beck and all the other staff for their patience and hospitality.

 

All photos by me.

Amshiré Ice Cider

Maker: Blake’s, Armada, Michigan, USAwp-1465945019263.jpg

Style: Ice Cider

ABV: 12.5%

Purchased for $16 (375 ml)

Appearance: Orangish yellow (my 5 y/o daughter’s description). Effervescent.

Nose: Apple wood, dry heirloom apple, lavender, grape soda.

Palate: Medium bodied and sweet. Bubbles, unoaked chardonnay, mango, papaya.

Finish: Botrytized wine. Fades quickly into a light tingle.

Parting words: Ice cider is similar to ice wine in concept. There are two styles: cryoextracted, and cryoconcentrated. Cryoextracted is similar to ice wine in its process. The fruit is left on the tree where it freezes. It is usually harvested in January and then cold fermented for an extended period of time (this differs from cryoextraction in wine which is a process that involves freezing grapes by artificial means). This cider is cryoconcentrated. That means the fruit is harvested late in the season, made into juice and then allowed to freeze. It is then cold fermented.

This is the first ice cider I’ve ever tried and it’s a winner. It lacks the sexy unctuousness of ice wine but it also lacks its often cloying character. It’s well balanced and complex but never obnoxious, at a least to me. I love it and I could drink it all day. This is what a $16 cider should taste like. Amshiré Ice Cider is highly recommended. I have no idea what the name means, though.