A popular alternative to beer in the United States is hard apple cider. Simply put, hard cider is beer that's been made with apple juice as a source of fermentation instead of beer's barley mash, but don't be fooled... cider isn't simply an alternative to beer, but a great drink in it's own right. (For a way to make a simple cider at home, check out my review of Spike Your Juice.)
As I understand it, cider is a much more popular drink in the UK than it is in the US. Truth be told, cider is rarely drunk by American beer drinkers as an alternative, but instead usually drunk by small cadres of cider fans. There are various kinds of cider around certain regions of the US, but Woodchuck is a brand that you’ll find almost nationwide. Luckily for us Americans, it’s a great brand, and they make great products.
Woodchuck's flagship is their Amber variety, a simple cider made from red apples. It's sweet and delicious. They make a Granny Smith cider, and one called 802 Dark & Dry, which is mixed with caramelized sugar. They also have Raspberry and Pear ciders, though consumer be warned: these are simply flavored apple ciders, not ciders of a different fruit.
Recently I learned that Woodchuck makes limited release seasonal ciders. While most websites pertaining to beer and spirits are dreadfully out-of-date when it comes to documenting their products, woodchuck.com is different. It tells me (albeit in marketing-speak) that they sell barrel-aged Winter, honeyed Spring, blueberry Summer, spiced Fall, and even Private Reserve Pumpkin cider!
But depending on where you live, they may be quite difficult to find. Even wine and beer authorities in my area such as Ace Beverage and Total Wine were unable to handily make a special order for me. But, for some reason, Harris Teeter has always had a superior Woodchuck selection, and that is where I haphazardly found a pack of Woodchuck Winter.
From the website:
"Somewhere between a delicate snowflake drifting down to your tongue and a hard-packed snowball to the teeth, the power of this winter Cider is a balanced culmination of Premium French and Traditional American Oak, giving the cider great complexity and broad characteristics that neither style could produce on its own."
I don't mean to give anything away, but I really had to compare side-by-side the Winter cider to Woodchuck's Amber cider in order to be able to discern some of the former's characteristics.
In the Glass
Like any cider, when poured into the glass, the Winter developed nowhere near the head that beer fans are used to. Once settled, the cider's color is a few shades darker than the Amber.
The smell of the Winter is delightfully apply, as expected, though its aroma is less powerful than the Amber.
This is the point where I realized that I needed to bring in the Amber cider for comparison and start over. The flavor of the Winter cider seemed undetectably different than the Amber, if perhaps a little less sweet. Disappointed, I cracked open some cold Amber and took a few sips. When I revisited the Winter, the differences finally arose.
The flavor is definitely less sweet, probably more on par with the Woodchuck 802 Dark & Dry. I finally taste the woodiness of the cider's extra aging... it's a very faint dry flavor much like the characteristics I taste in my own Cask-series spirits. I'm also able to detect a little bit of vanilla in the mix.
But alas, after a few sips, I can no longer taste the unique character of Winter. But when I switch back to Amber for a few sips and return to Winter once more, I can taste it again.
I guess I see what Woodchuck is doing here. They make a varietal of their cider whose flavor doesn't appreciably stray from their "core" ciders. That way, their loyal fans are able to drink their varietals without having to adapt their tastes or think too hard. But when someone like myself can barely taste the difference between your core and varietal ciders, then you have a problem.
I dearly wish that beverage and spirit companies would take more chances in issuing unique variations of their products. It really comes down to money versus innovation: you can either ensure that a new product is close enough to the old to keep consumption the same on average, or you can take a leap that may fall on its ass, but it may also advance the industry.
Perhaps I'm being a little harsh or hyperbolic, but I'm quite disappointed with Woodchuck Winter. I wouldn't go out of my way again to obtain it. I'd buy it again only to impress my cider-drinking friends at a party. I'd recommend it only to those who could obtain it easily. As for the other Woodchuck limited releases, I'd still love to try them, but knowing how nebulous it is to get my hands on them, I don't know if I ever will.
While we're on the subject of cider, let me share with you a great drink: the Stonewall cocktail.
You won't find too much information on the Stonewall for some reason, but some quick research makes it clear that the drink consists of whiskey and apple cider, hot or cold. I've found that Woodchuck Amber and bourbon make a fine Stonewall, and its flavors really hit the spot in fall or winter, for whatever reason. The bourbon manages to bring out the yeastiness of the cider, and the cider manages to highlight the pungent corn flavors of the bourbon. Do yourself a favor and pick up a pack of Woodchuck for this year's New Year celebration, and do yourself a second favor by making an Amber Stonewall.
2oz Woodchuck Amber hard cider
Pour ingredients into a tumbler filled with ice. Optional cinnamon stick for a stirrer/garnish.