There is a case to be made that the Kingston Black apple is the King of Cider Apples. It has long been recognized as one of the few apple varieties that possesses the requisite levels of tannins, acidity and sugar to create an outstanding cider without blending juice from different apple varieties.
This begs the question, what can be expected of a cider that is produced from and labeled as 100% Kingston Black? This was the question myself and a collection of excellent cider palates set out to explore recently when we all sat down to taste 13 different Kingston Black ciders produced from around the globe.
Classed as a “Bittersharp”, the Kingston Black possess both good amounts of tannins and acid and appears relatively small and darkish red. It has been a staple in English cider orchards since at least the beginning of the 19th century and has always been prized by cidermakers.
Though I can’t confirm this, it is reasonable to conclude today that the Kingston Black is the most common apple used to make a single variety cider.
What I was looking for in tasting through these 13 ciders was a thread of common characteristics that ran through all the ciders we tasted. Perhaps a common aroma or flavor profile or texture. I was looking for something distinctive that would help me create expectations for ciders I knew were made with a large percentage of Kingston Black or exclusively with Kingston Black apples.
What I concluded was this: There is little that can be said about the aromatic or flavor profile of Kingston Black ciders, while on the other hand nearly all the ciders we tasted had a very nice balance of acids and tannins. What is important to note is this: though there was no commonality among the aromas and flavors delivered up by these 13 Kingston Black ciders, this does not necessarily mean that Kingston Black apples are not prepared to deliver up a common flavor and aromatic profile. Rather, it means that cidermakers are not consistent in the way they handle their cidermaking. This should not be a surprise.
My conclusions also say nothing about the impact of terroir of place of origin and the characteristics of the Kingston Black ciders. In order to determine what kind of expectations one ought to have from Kingston Black cider produced from Finger Lake, West County, or Sonoma-grown apples, one would have to study a number of ciders produced from individual regions. And we did not do this.
However, consider that despite the variation in the origin of the ciders we tasted (Sonoma County, Oregon, Maryland, New York, England), the ciders most definitely displayed generally excellent balance, structure and texture.
My favorite examples of Kingston Black cider from the tasting included:
Sheppy’s Kingston Black (Somerset): Beautiful structure with sweeter and underripe apple notes, a touch of barnyard and grassy notes
Whetstone Ciderworks Kingston Black (Vermont): Ripe apple and citrus notes with a hint of funk on the nose, with a beautiful tannin/acid balance that carries along the unripe apple, citrus and earthy flavors
Farnum Hill 2013 Kingston Black Reserve (New Hampshire): A more acid driven Kingston Black with nice finishing tannins that all wraps around aromas of cooked/saucy apple and sweet spice aromas leading to flavors of cooked apple, lemon and earth
Tilted Shed Kingston Black (Sonoma County): Lifted and fresh sweet apple aromas, clove and hints of funk on the nose. Dense and rich flavors of cooked apple, slightly bitter notes and hints of wood with a beautiful balanced texture.
Slyboro Kingston Black (New York): Bright ripe apple and lime aromas. Dried apple flavors, hints of bitterness and a touch of woodiness. Very good tannin/acid balance with a long finish
Cider Riot Kingston Black (Oregon): Complex aromatic notes of cooked apple, Grand Marnier liqueur, sweet spice notes. Cooked apple flavors are sustained by a big tannic structure.
Redbyrd Orchard Kingston Black (New York): Baked apple and nutmeg aromatics, leading to tart apple flavors, big citrus notes and hints of the barn. Acid driven structure with supporting tannin.
The future of single variety ciders and of Kingston Black ciders is likely a limited one. The limiting factor is access. Cider apples remain in relatively short supply despite the increase in cider apple plantings over the past five years. In addition, the market for such well delineated ciders is limited to the Hyper Cider Geek wanting to explore something different.
However, the exploration of single variety ciders by curious and conscientious cidermakers is critical to the industry, particularly in the United States. Understanding how individual apples react to different terroirs only advances the critical knowledge serious producers must build to better understand how to produce better and more interesting ciders.