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France has calvados. Ireland now has its own excellent apple brandy, rum and ice wine

Longueville House, Highbank Orchards, Nohoval, Killahora and other craft producers deserve our support

Ireland is fortunate to have a small group of great craft-cider makers. But cider sales dwindle once the weather deteriorates, so some of our more enterprising producers have turned to alternative, more warming apple drinks for the colder months.

The French have their calvados, made in Normandy by distilling cider into an eaux-de-vie that is then aged in barrels. We have two apple-brandy producers in this country. The O’Callaghan family, of Longueville House in the Blackwater Valley, were one of the pioneering craft-cider producers and the first to make an apple brandy. “It all started about 40 years ago, when my father began growing grapes and making white wine,” says William O’Callaghan.

“The weather didn’t allow him to make it every year, but he was a farmer, interested in growing fruit, so he switched to apples, planting over 30 acres of Michelin and Dabinett, two cider varieties. He went to Normandy, in France, and learned how to make apple brandy, and purchased a few copper pot stills. He wasn’t really into cider, he just needed it to distil into brandy, which he then aged in French oak barrels. I took it over when he died, about 12 years ago, and I started bottling cider as well. "

“To make really good apple brandy and cider, you have to have really good apples. Ours are not organic, but we use as little pesticide as possible. The apple brandy is aged for a minimum of four years in barrel before release.”


The excellent Longueville House Irish Apple Brandy (€40) is available for sale directly online, and from O’Briens, the Celtic Whiskey Shop, Ardkeen and other good off-licences. As well as the standard cider, Longueville produce Mór, a delicious higher-strength cider that is aged for a year in barrels used to age their brandy.

Highbank Orchards is a family-run organic farm in Kilkenny. As well as several ciders, Rod and Julie Calder-Potts create a wonderful array of potions including balsamic vinegar, cider vinegar, syrup, treacle, vodka and gin. They also produce two apple brandies and have also just released a rum.

All of the Highbank produce is made from the same estate-grown organic apples. “We juice apples, take some for apple juice and leave the rest to ferment in barrels using our own natural yeasts,” says Rod Calder-Potts. “We never add sulphites. We leave it until late spring, decant it off the lees and we have our raw ingredient.” Some is retained for cider, some destined to become an eau-de-vie, and the rest used for vinegar (their biggest seller), syrups and treacle.

One brandy is labelled Brandey, the Irish for brandy, the other is called Highbank Orchard Spirit. “The idea for the Brandey first came from Evan Doyle of the Strawberry Tree in BrookLodge Hotel,” Calder-Potts says. “We call it a liqueur but it is less sweet and is richer. It turned out really well, as did the Orchard Spirit. The Orchard spirit is drier, with the phenolics of a fine whiskey. It is so much nicer than most Calvados.”

“The brandies are selling nicely direct – most retailers don’t get it, they didn’t like the ‘e’ in the brandey, but it sells very well in restaurants. Chefs are often the first people to find out about us. JP McMahon in Galway has been a brilliant support, as has the Cliff at Lyons, Aimsir and Ashford Castle.”

Highbank has just released a 100 per cent organic apple rum. “It started off as a mistake,” Calder-Potts laughs. “We had a syrup that was too runny, and when we distilled it, to our horror it had gone black and caramelised – an apple treacle – so we mixed with eaux-de-vie to make the most incredible rum.” All of their produce is available online and from specialist off-licences.

Nohoval is an apple wine company, an off-shoot of the well-known craft cider company Stonewell, both owned and run by Géraldine Javoy and her husband, Daniel Emerson. The couple wanted to make a clear distinction between their produce. “It’s not cider, it is still, and made in smaller quantities and only made with the juice from cider apples,” Javoy says. She was born in a vineyard in the Loire valley, so it is hardly surprising that she wanted to look at ways of making wine in Ireland. They do not sell apple brandy – yet. “Watch this space. It is maturing. It will take a few more years but it is coming.”

Nohoval make two fruit wines. The Elstar is a crisp dry single variety, single orchard wine, while Apple Oak wine has been aged in used barrels, mostly from Muscadet. “As the wine matures, it gets more flavours and roundness and a sweet touch. Drink it like any wine. It makes great sauces with pork too.” Their best-known drink is the Tawny. As the name suggests, it has a certain similarity with a tawny Port. It is a cider that is then passed through some hops. It is best served with cheese and desserts.

Killahora in Glounthaune in east Cork is another innovative Irish apple grower. They have a 200-year-old south-facing orchard planted with more than 100 varieties of apple. Best-known for their excellent Rare Apple Ice Wine, they also produce a cider, a delicious Poiré (perry) and Pom’O, which they describe as an apple aperitif. They have a pet nat in the pipeline and collaborated with whiskey producer Roe & Co on a project earlier this year. The cellar at Killahora is something of an Aladdin’s cave, a collection of various liquids bubbling or ageing away.

“The Pom’O and Rare Apple Ice Wine are the bulk of what we do,” Barry Walsh explains. The Pom’O is made by mixing apple juice from their orchards with apple brandy. This is then aged in barrels previously used to age Irish whiskey. It is an intriguing drink, spicy with caramel, a touch of both whiskey and apple aperitif. “It is less sweet than a port or French pommeau,” says Walsh. “We blend in a significant amount of our earlier apples to give freshness and acidity so it’s not too sweet. It’s a great sipper at the end of a dinner with blue cheese and apple desserts – or an aperitif with tonic – we have it on a number of Michelin-star menus in Ireland and abroad.”

“People are really interested in it because they haven’t tried anything like it before. Like everything we do, the starting point is 100 per cent apples. We sell out every year; we have barrels going back to 2018/19 to retain consistency.”

You can buy all of the Killahora produce on their website (including a mixed case of their drinks that makes a great gift for the Irish diaspora), or from specialist off-licences, including Terroirs, Celtic Whiskey, Bradleys and Ardkeen.

The producers featured here and our other craft cider producers deserve our support. “We’re small,” says William O’Callaghan “and we don’t have the marketing clout, but people need to told about us as we have great products.”