Calvados is one of the ‘big three’ French brandies along with Cognac and Armagnac. Like its southern cousins, it matures in oak barrels and comes out bearing VS, VSOP and XO labels at two, four and six years, respectively. But where Cognac and Armagnac are based on grapes, Calvados begins life in the orchards of Normandy as apples and pears.
Its 300 producers make about 6 million bottles each year, half of which head overseas. Given this, it might seem odd that the UK doesn’t see more of it. Truth be told, le calva spent the last few decades in the doldrums. Now though its fortunes are on the up. Established brands such as Drouin and Coquerel are driving innovation, while new producers like Avallen and 30&40 have injected fresh energy.
Where is Calvados made?
Calvados is governed by three sets of overlapping AOC regulations. Each one has slightly different rules on the type of still that may be used and the proportion of apples and pears that can go into the mix.
The Calvados AOC is the main appellation and extends over all of Normandy. It is also the broadest, allowing apples and pears in any proportion, distilled in either pots or columns, and aged for at least two years in oak.
Calvados Pays d’Auge covers an area just east of Caen, stretching from Deauville on the coast to about 30km south of Lisieux. Producers here may use at most 30% pears and must only use copper pots to distil their spirit.
Calvados Domfrontais lies a small distance southwest of this, centred around the town of Domfront-en-Poiraie. Here the mix must be at least 30% pears, and distillers must use column stills heated by an open fire. They must also mature their spirit for at least three years rather than the usual two.
What does Calvados taste like?
In a word: familiar. We all know apples. This makes Calvados very approachable, especially for drinkers new to spirits aged in wood. The oak barrels add layers of vanilla and baking spices. Apple crumble and custard, anyone? Adding in pears brings a light and floral character; if you’ve ever compared perry to cider this should be familiar ground.
Younger Calvadoses tend to be lighter and more fruit-forward. They often display floral and fruity aromas from their fermentation that complement the flavours of the fruit. The influence of the oak is, at this stage, more of a gentle background depth. Think brioche and glazed pastries filled with crème pâtissière.
With age the fruit develops, changing from fresh to something more like baked or poached apples and pears. Tarte tatin springs to mind now. The flavours from the barrels usually grow stronger and in some spirits a tannic dryness can develop on the finish.
How to drink Calvados
For a long time Calvados was all-but synonymous with le trou Normand, which saw it swigged neat as a digestif after a meal – or even between courses if table and diners alike were especially laden with food. Its other main role was as a fortifying pick-me-up glugged into hot coffee on a cold, damp morning.
Nowadays you’re more likely to see le café calva reinterpreted as a riff on the Espresso Martini, as Calvados enjoys a resurgence powering cocktails. It can also be mixed into long, refreshing apple spritzes; younger, lighter Calvadoses perform especially well in this mode.
For an autumnal cocktail to celebrate the apple harvest, stir equal parts young Calvados and sweet vermouth over ice with a couple of dashes of Angostura Bitters, then strain into a chilled coupe and garnish with a maraschino cherry. Sounds like a Manhattan, but maybe it’s more of a Big Apple?
Calvados to try
30&40 Extra Old 10 Year Old Calvados
Independent bottler 30&40 has a single cask range and a range of blends. This is a blend of four Calvadoses from three producers, aged between 10 and 28 years. Expect fruity apple and quince aromas with baked apples, stewed peaches and buttery fudge on the palate. Alcohol 42%
This is a young Calvados and very approachable. You’ll find notes of crisp, light apples overlaid with floral notes. It’s great for mixing into a cocktail or spritz. Every bottle sold removes 2.73kg o carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and part of the profits fund charities to support bees. Alc 40%
Christian Drouin Caroni Angels Calvados
This Calvados is matured in oak for 17 years before soaking in former Caroni rum casks for a further eight months. It has complex aromas of roasted apple, dried apricot, leather, petroleum and brown sugar. Toasted and smoky baked apple joins on the palate. Alc 48.8%
Didier Lemorton 30 Year Old Domfrontais Calvados
Domfrontais Calvados is harder to find in the UK, but thankfully this is a fine example and good value too. Pears make up 70% of the mix, so they rule the flavour roost. Expect elegant poached pear and toffee apple, honey, caramel, vanilla and peppery spice. Alc 40%
Michel Huard 2003 Calvados
This well-regarded family producer, now run by its seventh generation, makes mainly vintages rather than the usual non-vintage blends. This means each bottle is made from fruit grown and distilled in the year shown on the label. This one, distilled in 2003, displays light notes of green apple, caramel and nutmeg. Alc 40%
Père Magloire VSOP Pays d’Auge Calvados
A rich and fruity Calvados from one of the spirit’s premier producers. Aged for at least four years, it has floral aromas of apple blossom and jasmine, ripe apple and apricot. Expect rich flavours of honey and vanilla, buttery caramel, hazelnut and almond, stewed apples and cinnamon. Alc 40%
Pierre Huet 1972 Calvados
This is aged for 38 years in 100-year-old French oak barrels before bottling. It has a rich aroma of fresh green apples that develops into autumnal, mushroomy rancio notes. The mellow palate has light flavours of tarte tatin and Madeira. Enjoy at room temperature as a digestif. Alc 42%
Roger Groult Calvados 12 Year Old
Another Pays d’Auge Calvados, but it’s all apples and no pears. This comes from a fifth-generation producer who double distils over a wood fire. It is fruity and complex, with rich floral notes and mature apple flavours over hazelnut and sweet spice. Alc 41%