Style: Sparkling apple cider fermented with plum skins.
Purchased for $10/500 ml (Holiday Market)
Appearance: Little head, but persistent bubbles.
Nose: Apple juice, citrus blossom.
Palate: Effervescent and semi-sweet. Semi-tart table apples, pinch of tannin, pinch of yeast.
Finish: More acid and tannin with lingering sweetness.
Parting words: Blake’s Foraged series includes ciders made with fruit “foraged” from Blake farms. There’s Nova, made with Nova raspberries, and then there’s this cider made with the skins of Santa Rosa plums also grown on the estate (see map). Santa Rosa is a 112 y/o variety created by Luther Burbank, inventor of the russet potato. Santa Rosa was very popular through most of the twentieth century but it doesn’t ship well so it’s not often found in grocery stores. It’s soft and sweet and has tart, slightly tannic skin.
The specific varieties that go into this cider are not disclosed on the label but we are told that they are late-season varieties. Whatever they are, they work perfectly with the plum skins, adding tartness and tannins to produce an elegant, balanced cider with a beautiful pinkish color. There is no plum flavor at all here, there’s just added depth and structure.
Santa Rosa pairs very well with food and I even served it at Thanksgiving this last year. $10 is a great price too. I love this cider. Blake’s Santa Rosa is highly recommended.
Style: Apple cider flavored with apple juice, prickly pear extract, pear juice concentrate and elderflower.
Price: $10/6 12 oz cans
Appearance: Light gold with tiny bubbles.
Nose: Barlett Pear, elderflower, nutmeg.
Palate: Medium dry. Effervescence, elderflower liquer, drop of canned pear syrup.
Finish: Clean & juicy. Slightly tart.
Parting words: As far as I can tell, this is the closest thing to a perry that Blake’s makes , which is a shame. Craft perry makers have an even harder time than craft cider-makers at finding heritage varieties traditionally used for their product. As a result, most perry is made from Bartlett or other table varieties. As a result of that, most American perries taste like watered down, slightly boozy versions of the syrup one finds canned pears swimming in. This leads creative producers like Blake’s to get, uh, creative. While technically apple cider, Grizzly Pear tastes like a quality perry. The elderflower infusion is a nice, floral counterpoint to the strong pear flavor and results in a more balanced product than standard, one dimensional perry. The prickly pear extract is undetectable, at least by me.Grizzly Pear pairs well with pork and spicy chicken dishes, but is best for casual weekend sipping. The price is reasonable.
My only complaint (a big one, actually) is that the packaging is deceptive, perhaps intentionally so. A pear is featured front and center and no mention of this product being flavored apple cider appears outside the ingredient list. The label describes it as “hard cider” but since perry is often lumped together with apple cider, a reasonable person could still assume that this is a perry after reading that description.
I have no problem with funky, Franken-ciders like this but Blake’s should be up front about what this is instead of “stealing valor” from the poor neglected pears of the world. I want to give this a recommendation, but I’m going to have to ding it for deceptive packaging. Grizzly Pear is mildly recommended. Fix this, Blake’s.
Maker: Blake’s, Armada (ar-MAY-duh), Michigan, USA
Style: Dry apple cider with cherries & orange peel
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.
Maker: Uncle John’s Fruit House, St. John’s, Michigan, USA
Style: Hard cider flavored with cinnamon candies.
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.
Maker: Left Foot Charley, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Apples: Northern Spy, Golden Delicious, Ida Red.
Style: Apple cider with Sumatran and Vietnamese cinnamon (no sugar added).
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.
Style: Apple cider with peach juice, ginger juice and sugar.
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.
Uncle 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.
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.
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
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
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 (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.
They 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.
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.
Purchased for $13 (Michigan By the Bottle Tasting Room, Royal Oak)
Appearance: Bright gold. Very little carbonation noticeable.
Nose: Canned peaches, sweetened apple sauce.
Palate: Fresh white peaches, Golden Delicious apples, minerals, lemon thyme.
Finish: Semi dry with a tart tingle on the tongue.
Parting words: This is the third Chaos cider I’ve reviewed. Like the other fruit flavored ciders in the line, the unfermented apple cider is combined with a fruit wine base and then fermented together. That process makes it less of a flavored cider than a compound fruit wine.
It was not as sweet and sticky as I expected, but it still has enough weight to hold up to club soda and ice. Cherry Blush is more complex and frankly better than this, but Sweet Blush is still worth a try if you’re in the mood for some light patio drinking. Sweet Peach is recommended.
Maker: Chaos Cider/Verterra Winery, Leland, Michigan, USA
Style: Cherry flavored apple cider.
Purchased for $13/750 ml (Michigan by the Bottle Tasting Room, Royal Oak). Growlers available at the winery for $20, with $16 refills.
Appearance: Dark pink with light bubbles.
Nose: Fresh cut Golden Delicious apples, cherry jello salad.
Palate: Effervescent and semi-sweet. Apple juice, cherry cola, fruit salad juice (with cherries of course), slice of Granny Smith.
Finish: Crisp, dry and quick.
Parting words: I reviewed the Just Apple from Chaos Cider (Verterra Winery by day) back in the fall and I liked it. I like this too. According to a phone conversation with the owner, Cherry Blush starts as cider, then is fermented with a “cherry wine base” (unfermented I assume). This is not a case of adding cherry juice or flavoring to a finished cider. The more complex method shows in the excellent balance here. This isn’t fruit covering up subpar cider, it’s a harmonious blend of cherry and apple. I like it before, during or after a meal. Chaos Cherry Blush is recommended.
Style: Cider with pecans, vanilla and cinnamon (sugar added).
Purchased for $11/4 pint cans (Holiday Market)
Appearance: Pale gold with a little effervescence.
Nose: Toffee apples, toasted pecans.
Palate: Still effervescent. Light and semi-sweet. Candy apple with nuts, but never sticky or cloying.
Finish: Crisp and clean with a lingering nuttiness.
Parting words: This is the third Vander Mill cider I’ve reviewed and they’ve all been good. This one is no exception. It’s flavorful without being obnoxiously so. What keeps the flavor in check is a solid dry cider base. It’s so well balanced that it even drinks well with a meal, not just after one. I had it with everything from Pierogis and Kielbasa to rum-soused halibut and it held up well. The price is fair for an artisanal cider of this quality. I like the pint cans too. Vander Mill’s Totally Roasted is recommended.