Apple Kingdom

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Eden Ice Cider Company

Story By Chris Davis
Photography by Michele Davis

EIC 8Albert, a former chemistry teacher, and Eleanor Leger built Eden Ice Cider Co. in West Charleston in 2007 with one part reverie, one part impulse and one part meticulous planning. (And, not incidentally, an enormous amount of hard work.)

“We knew we wanted a working farm with an orchard,” says Eleanor, whose family has been in northern New England since at least the 1880s. But the inspiration to dedicate that farm to producing fine dessert cider did not seize the couple until one day in 2006 in Montreal, as they sipped a Canadian cidre de glace, the apple equivalent of ice wine and a signature Québécois specialty.

Like all good entrepreneurs, Eleanor wondered, “Why isn’t this being done on our side of the border?” Vermont boasts an abundance of quality apples and quality cold weather, she reasoned—two crucial requirements for concocting this unique potion. By spring 2007 the Legers had taken the plunge, buying an abandoned dairy farm and planting trees and their dream on a remote hillside in the Northeast Kingdom.

This gracious and brainy couple are the perfect ambassadors for their craft: knowledgeable but humble, zealous but not pushy. They both exude a soft-spoken confidence that comes with dedication to their craft and the knowledge that they are doing good: reclaiming a lost Vermont orchard, implementing eco-sensitive practices and supporting the local community, not to mention fashioning an exceptional gourmet product.

Despite the detailed business plan (which included hiring oenologist consultants) and incalculable man- and woman-hours, Eleanor still seems amazed at Eden’s remarkable critical and commercial success: “The first vintage was crazy! We didn’t know what we were doing.” She and Albert were, to say the least, delighted, however, when they discovered that they had conjured a delicious elixir that Eleanor realized shone “with character and balance.”

Eden’s owners had a right to be scared. Farming is, of course, a famously unpredictable vocation at best, let alone when it is practiced by novices in short-season, unforgiving Vermont. Combine this reality with the delicate pas de deux that is masterful fermentation, and you are managing a business—two, really—that lives or dies according to the whim of weather and biochemistry. Moreover, while the couple’s significant market research indicated that there would be a customer base for their high-end products, a warm reception to their icy offering was by no means certain.

While the term “ice cider” has a lovely ring to it, Eden’s products bear about as much resemblance to traditional American cider as Chateau Margaux does to a bottle of Welch’s. OK, that may be comparing apples to apples. But whereas cider is simply unfiltered apple juice (fermented to create the “hard” version), it demands many exacting steps (what Eleanor describes as “discipline”) to bring forth the intense, robust but elegant nose, body and taste of hand-crafted ice cider.

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Eden’s brew is made by allowing freshly pressed ripe apple juice to freeze naturally (in the Vermont elements) for six to eight weeks. Slow melting then allows the maker to separate the ice—the water—from the frozen mass, yielding a concentrated, high-sugar decoction that is ready to be fermented, a process that “requires precise timing to achieve the ideal balance of alcohol and sweetness,” according to Eleanor. When that timing is perfect, the golden juice reaches the “purest essence of this particular fruit.” For many connoisseurs, it is the apotheosis of the apple.

In addition to their standard-bearer, Heirloom Blend, Eden offers two other ice cider labels: Windfall Orchards, made with fruit from a friend’s orchard, and Northern Spy, the Legers’ first—and successful—crack at a single-varietal, barrel-aged specimen. Most recently, “inspired by the craft cocktail trend,” the company introduced their Orleans line of European-style bitter aperitifs. Infused with local organic herbs, these elegant ciders are bracing and delicious over ice or ideal to make your gin and vodka wake up and pay attention.

All of these “brands” are now available widely at fine wine and gourmet food shops—throughout New England and nationally. The best selection of Eden products, however, is on display at the new Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center on Main Street in Newport.

The Tasting Center, which opened its doors in August but was officially dedicated on October 18, is the brainchild of none other than Eleanor and Albert Leger. Long a twinkle in the couple’s eye, this modern, open and airy retail shrine to Vermont food and drink features a first-class, if casual, café (the Brown Dog Bistro), a butcher shop, craft cheese and maple-based selections and a bakery, amongst other Green Mountain goodies. Not to be missed is the friendly bar at the Brown Dog, where, in addition to the bistro’s regular menu, you can order samples of the house-made charcuterie (fabulously earthy duck rilletes and chicken liver pâté), washed down with tastes of small-batch Vermont wine (good) or beer (better).

According to Trish Sears, CEO of the Newport City Renaissance Corp., the Tasting Center is an early jewel in the crown of a comprehensive revitalization of downtown and waterfront Newport. “We were able to secure a grant from USDA Rural Development. Bill Stenger, a visionary local developer will be key, as well. Our mission, in addition to the broad aesthetic and economic improvement of this important town, is the protection and creation of local jobs.”

The Tasting Center is a collaborative effort of many diverse Vermonters, all of whom share a common goal of showcasing the best native edibles and potables the state has to offer and, in the process, helping farmers, craftsmen, retailers and the city of Newport. And now that Eden has moved its operation to the expansive downstairs, where you can actually view the cider-making process and can sample all their offerings at the tasting bar, a visit to the center is an essential stop for anyone interested in doing good food and doing good.

So, how exceptional is Eden Ice Cider? Forget the roomful of gold medals, blue ribbons and trophies. Dismiss the unanimously effusive press. Ignore the fetching bottles and labels. Don’t consider the pilgrims who regularly made their arduous way to West Charleston just to see where it all happens. And overlook that EIC is served in some of the country’s marquee restaurants (New York’s Gramercy Tavern among them).

Instead, open a bottle—ideally with a Vermont cheese (Bayley Hazen Blue from neighboring Jasper Hill Farm would serve admirably)—and see (taste!) what the fuss is all about. The Legers’ handiwork bursts with intense apple perfume, of course, but also unravels in a multitude of other flavors: honey, orange peel, ripe pears, wood, caramel (wow—is that really cinnamon, or just a Proustian apple-pie moment?) and violet petals, with the daintiest edge of bitterness and a subtle, gradual afterburn of alcohol. Depth of character like that instantly elects Eden’s ice cider to a place in the pantheon of truly great dessert drinks, alongside vintage port, fine Sauternes and Jerez reserva sherries.

It is tempting to suggest that if you like apples, you will love top-shelf ice cider from uncommonly committed and earnest makers like the Legers. Rarely can you enjoy so many pleasing sensations in one food, enhanced by a distinct sense of terroir—a profound “northern Vermontness.” While this may not have been exactly what the doctor had in mind, what a joyous way to enjoy an apple a day!

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