Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Bantam Cider: The New Barrel Aged La Grande

"In early eighteenth-century New England, the most popular alcoholic drink, in terms of volume, was locally produced cider. Throughout much of this period, cider served as a currency. It was used to pay salaries and product prices could be quoted in barrels of cider."
--Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol by Iain Gately (p.152)

A year ago, I met Michele da Silva and Dana Masterpolo, the passionate owners of Bantam Cider, a new local cidery in Cambridge. I tasted and enjoyed their first product, the Wunderkind, and it was the Runner-Up for my 2012 Favorite Hard Cider. They have now released their second cider, La Grande, and they offered to send me a sample to try. I was eager to taste this new barrel aged cider.

La Grande is a blend of local apples, including about 40% of the Reine de Pomme, a French heirloom cider apple. The Reine de Pomme ("Queen of the Apple") is sourced from two small orchards in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. This apple seems to have a murky origin in France, though it apparently has existed for at least one hundred years, and likely much longer. It is known to possess strong tannins and a bitter taste so it is not considered a good apple to eat though it can produce an excellent cider.

Cider making has a lengthy history in France, extending back over 1000 years. When the cider press was invented in the 13th century, cider production really took off. In France, they grow plenty of orchards of cider apples, many which are not good for eating, but which can produce excellent ciders. With a nod to these French roots, La Grande is Bantam's La Grande Dame, their Great Lady.

La Grande uses both wild and cultivated yeasts and it is fermented dry. Though they add a little bit of honey to their Wunderkind, no honey is added to La Grande. The cider is then aged in 60 gallon used barrels for about four months. They use about 60% bourbon barrels and about 40% rum barrels, which have been sourced from a variety of places, from Kentucky to New York. It is also bottled unfined and unfiltered, with an alcohol content of 6.9%.

Their inspiration for La Grande seems to have been their desire to highlight some of the special apples they have discovered in Western Massachusetts, like the Reine de Pomme. They also wanted this cider to be honest and unadulterated, which is the reason it is dry, unfined and unfiltered.

La Grande is a very different cider from their Wunderkind, which has a light sweetness and a fuller body. La Grande has a golden amber color, though you will find it is a bit cloudy and there may be some sediment in the bottle as it is unfiltered. Don't let that prevent you from tasting this cider, and it shouldn't detract from its taste either. It is a dry cider, with a lean, crisp and clean apple flavor and a mild effervescence, lightly refreshing bubbles. On the finish is where the barrel aging seemed to shine forth the boldest, providing an interesting and subdued bourbon flavor.

This is a compelling cider, and I enjoyed it even more than the Wunderkind as I preferred its clean dryness. The added complexity on the finish is another benefit and La Grande receives my hearty recommendation. You will find La Grande sold in 22 ounce bottles for approximately $8.99 and they are now available in select stores in the Greater Boston area. Bantam Cider suggests pairing La Grande with cheese, pork or chocolate though I think it would work with other dishes as well, from roast chicken to burgers. During the summer, this is going to be an excellent cider to sip outside while you enjoy the sun.

Michele and Dana have produced a winner cider, and I look forward to drinking more La Grande in the coming months, as well as anticipating the next new cider they produce.

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