Cider-making in all its guises is enjoying a comeback, writes Jim Eagles.

At first sight the Heath-Robinson contraption of tall, skinny, copper stills linked by a bewildering maze of pipes oozing apple-smelling steam was a bit off-putting.

With chooks and pigs running wild in the yard, abandoned machinery rusting in the corners and several of the buildings looking on the point of collapse, the place looked more like a backwoods moonshine operation in the mountains of Appalachia than an award-winning cider distillery in a picturesque part of rural Somerset.

But then we got a taste of the result, Kingston Black cider brandy aperitif, its lovely sweet apple flavour nicely offset by the bite of the alcohol and a dry finish. Next followed Somerset Pomona digestif, matured in small oak barrels to add depth to the flavour, fuller-bodied and slightly drier, with a hint of butterscotch, and even more to my taste.

It was easy to see why in centuries past cider brandy - the English version of Normandy's famous Calvados - was extremely popular.

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If it wasn't for the fact that we still had many a mile to go that day - much of it through quaint but scary lanes, lined with stone walls and only wide enough for a single vehicle - I'd have happily quaffed a few more.

Instead, we followed our cheerfully eccentric host, Julian Temperley, into his comfortably chaotic kitchen for a nice cup of tea and a chat about cider and, in particular, Somerset cider brandy and the Burrow Hill cider he produces.

I was at Burrow Hill in the course of my personal campaign to check out British regional fare, which has involved consuming pork pies in Yorkshire, whisky on the Island of Islay, pasties in Cornwall, haggis in Scotland, kippers in Sussex, real ales everywhere, cream teas in Devonshire and Cornwall and now cider in Somerset.

Along the way I'd forced down quite a lot of cider - often a bit sweet for my taste, occasionally superb - but I also wanted to get a feel for where it comes from, and Julian is the man for that.

"Cider," he declares, "goes back to the dawn of time. Once we'd all have been drinking it. But the aristocrats in this country came from France, the French drink wine, the gentry like to copy the aristos, and so wine took over.

"We need to get cider back on the dining table."

His one-man campaign to achieve that - "unfortunately cider-makers can't work together, they each live on their own island of idiocy" - seems to be going well.

There are 26 cider-makers on the Somerset County Council-issued map but I chose to visit Burrow Hill after learning that it holds the Worshipful Company of Fruiterers' Cup for the Supreme Champion Cider at the Royal Bath and West Show. That cider was made from apples grown in the orchard at historic Glastonbury Abbey. I bought a bottle and it was delicious. No wonder more than 50 pubs buy Burrow Hill cider.

What makes Temperley's operation unique, however, is the cider brandy. In 1989, after a lengthy battle with officialdom, he was granted Britain's first cider brandy distilling licence and he's been making it ever since. "I must have been crackers," he says. "I'd have to admit I started distilling out of vanity but it's become a bit of an obsession."

The Somerset Brandy Cider Company's Julian Temperley. Photo / Jim Eagles
The Somerset Brandy Cider Company's Julian Temperley. Photo / Jim Eagles

Our visit came at the wrong time of the year to see cider being made but we saw the French cider brandy stills called Josephine and Fifi - the skinny copper contraptions - in action.

Tim Edwards, who operates the stills, tunes it by following his nose. "I could do it by taste, but I have to drive home, so instead I do it by smell."

As he sniffed distillate and checked the temperature of the pipes with his hands, tightened valves and adjusted burners, he also told us of the long history of cider brandy making.

"It's always been here. It was driven underground for a while when the excise man got too greedy. But distilling never stopped.

You used to go into the pub, ask for a bottle of Spitfire, and it would come wrapped in newspaper. The only difference now is we've got a licence so we can do it openly."

The raw spirit from the stills is stored in a mix of new oak and old sherry barrels - in a heavily fortified bond store until it has matured enough to be mixed with apple juice and bottled.

Julian took us there to try a few more of his brandies.

First there's the Shipwreck apple brandy, so-called because it was matured in barrels salvaged from a local shipwreck; then the lovely 10-year-old, the even smoother 15-year-old and finally the magnificent 20-year-old. There's also an apple brandy whisky. And, of course, the aromatic Apple Eau de Vie is too good to miss.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Emirates flies three times daily from Auckland to Dubai with direct connections to London, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow.

Where to stay: Beryl's B&B is in an elegant mansion near Wells.

Further information: www.visitsomerset.co.uk, visitessex.com, visitbritain.com
The writer travelled with help from Emirates and Visit Britain.