Sometimes I take a break from reviewing craft beer and take a quick gander into the land of the cider. Without diminishing the excellence of craft beer, I believe that I can vouch for cider as a valid companion to beer. I first became interested in cider on a trip to Normandy, France. In this region the climate is best for apple orchards, not vineyards, and they make some amazing apple beverages, not the least of which is cider. It also yields a mean apple brandy called Calvados.

On to today’s fermented companion, Woodchuck Private Reserve Barrel Select. If that isn’t an honorable enough title, I don’t know what is. Last fall I got my hands on some Woodchuck Limited Release Fall Cider, and was blown away by the flavor profile. I decided Woodchuck’s lineup was worth investigating, and so I tackled it. Today, I am happy to name a new favorite: the Barrel Select Cider. This. Cider. Is. Awesome.

Craft beer brewers and enthusiasts are enamored with the barrel-aging process. We love us some oaken barrels, be they whiskey, port, brandy, or otherwise. With the Barrel Select, Woodchuck cider taps into a familiar tradition and uses the technique to create a truly remarkable cider. The Private Reserve Barrel Select is a recent addition, relatively new to the market. I found a six pack at my local liquor store and grabbed it up with out hesitation. The first bottle I enjoyed alone, without a camera or notes. I wanted to just experience it without distraction.

The second bottle I reviewed for your pleasure. It poured a really nice clean copper color into my Woodchuck shaker: this is the darkest of any of the Woodchuck ciders I have tried so far. Since ciders don’t typically build any kind of head to speak of, the aroma from the glass usually isn’t very strong – this is generally true across the style. Woodchuck Barrel Select follows this trend, although compared to other mainstream ciders it really stands out. Amid the usual fresh apple you can detect some awesome Bourbon and caramel notes. The nose isn’t as bursting as the Fall Cider, which has tons of spices in it. In some ways I like that there aren’t too many competing aromas … it prepares me more for the sip.

One sip of Woodchuck Private Reserve Barrel Select and I am totally hooked. My initial reaction, besides “Wow!” of course, is the crisp apple freshness and awesome brown sugar finish. I take a second sip, this time focusing on the smoky white oak Kentucky Bourbon flavors, and am bowled over yet again. They’re there alright, perfectly balanced. At 6.9% ABV, this is a slightly stronger cider. Combined with a taste that’s out of this world, the ABV makes this one dangerous beverage for lightweights.

This is one great cider, my favorite so far. Even better than the fresh ciders I tried in Normandy, which were superb. What makes this cider great? It’s nuanced yet balanced. Ciders are not meant to be strong sippers. They’re intended to both refresh you, and complement other foods. In the case of the Barrel Select, you have a cider that’s made with really excellent Northeast apples. It’s given character by barrel aging, but it isn’t overdone. It’s not heavy. Despite the slightly higher ABV, it remains refreshing, and it boasts an epic taste that isn’t confusing … it’s just executed perfectly. If you care about cider, this is one you can’t afford to miss.