The French region of Normandy is well known for its WWII beaches, gorgeous white cliffs, the iconic Mont Saint Michel, and delicious, juicy apples! Orchards and breweries in this part of France date back to the 8th century so it’s no surprise that the beloved Calvados apple brandy, an alcohol made from apples, is so popular in Normandy and all over the world!!
Mr. Misadventures and I spent a week in the region named after this very drink – Calvados.
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What is Calvados Apple Brandy?
Calvados is a type of brandy that begins its journey as a cider. The base of the cider is primarily produced with apples, although a certain quantity of pears is allowed in the mix.
The different types of apples are harvested and pressed into a juice that is fermented into a dry cider. It is then distilled into eau de vie. After aging in old oak casks, it can be sold. The longer it ages, the smoother this French brandy becomes.
The orchards in Normandy grow more than 200 varieties of apples in four distinct categories made up of different varieties of apples – sweet, sharp, bittersweet, and bittersharp, all red apples. The cider is a blend of all four of the different apple varieties to balance the taste and character of the final Calvados.
Is Calvados made in Normandy?
Calvados liqueur is named after its home region, in Calvados Normandy (specifically Calvados Pays d'Auge), and is a French apple brandy and has its own Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) status. Much like champagne, the apples and pears that are used to make cider have to be grown in the orchards of Normandy, and Calvados can be produced only in the geographical areas demarcated by the National Institute of Origin and Quality.
Currently, there are three Calvados AOCs. The first one was awarded to Calvados Pays d’Auge in 1942, followed by Calvados in 1984 and Calvados Domfrontais in 1997. The areas cover a large part of Normandy and have some similarities in the production process.
History and Origins
Thanks to its mild climate, Normandy was well-known for its apple production in all of France. The residents have a wide knowledge of how to care for the apples and the best way to preserve them, which, more often than not, was turning the fruit into a beverage.
The first written record of the distillation can be traced back to a Norman manuscript in 1553 by Gilles de Gouberville who refers to the stills and eau-de-vie in his Mémoires. During this time, cider distillation was for local and personal consumption, until the 17th century when it started to be known outside Normandy.
The drink was known as cider eau-de-vie du Calvados and did not enjoy the same prestige as that of wine eau-de-vie. It was in the 19th century that Calvados apple brandy really became popular and started to be known as a refined spirit. [It might have become more popular in the 18th century, but King Louis XIV passed a law that forbade Calvados makers from exporting their product outside Normandy likely because one of the king's ministers was from Cognac.]
The introduction of industrial distilleries as well as a growing interest in the taste and aromas of the spirit led to producers competing to enhance their quality. By improving their techniques, they aimed to win trade events and display the awards on their labels.
While the First World War showed Normandy as an image of peace and tranquility, the Second World War brought a chaotic period for Calvados. The state monopolized alcohol production to create explosives for the war but the producers fought to build a reputation for Calvados as a naturally produced spirit.
Pear and apple cider eau-de-vies were soon granted AOC and AOR status, making producers adhere to strict guidelines for terminology and production.
Calvados soon became expensive as a result of heavy taxation due to the increase in alcohol intake in the 50s and the growing American influence. It was only in the 1980s that producers started creating a high-value product by focusing on growing the fruits under the right conditions and aging the spirits at constant temperatures.
Calvados had 10 official AORs, which were regrouped in 1984 under the Calvados Appellation, and now have distilleries scattered around the Normandy region in Northern France.
The Calvados Orchards
Apples are grown all over Normandy, and Calvados has around 8000 hectares of orchards dedicated to its production. The 3 million apple trees are a wonderful source of diverse fruit variety, they have a high resistance to climate variation and are home to many living organisms. The orchards mostly use natural fertilizers and low water consumption.
The Calvados apple brandy production is an extensive local network that is essential to the livelihood of the towns and villages of Normandy. The orchards not only supply fruit for the making of Calvados but are also a source of eco-tourism for the region. Hundreds and thousands of tourists visit the distilleries and orchards to witness firsthand the aesthetics of the farms and to learn about the process.
Mr. Misadventures and I spent a morning at La Galetière (in Crouttes in the heart of Calvados) exploring the orchard and checking out the process of making French apple cider and Calvados apple brandy.
What is Calvados Made From?
Being the largest of the three AOCs, the majority of AOC Calvados go through a single distillation (called the petite eau) through the column still (although, pot still distillation is also allowed for this appellation). After the first distillation, these spirits must be aged in oak barrels for at least two years.
AOC Calvados Pays d'Auge
AOC Calvados Pays d’Auge covers a small area in the center of Normandy. The spirits produced in this appellation are required to go through double distillation in a copper pot still and aged for a minimum of two years in oak barrels. The spirit from Pays d’Auge is considered to be the finest and best Calvados in terms of quality as it offers elegant flavors with good concentration.
There are rarer versions of Calvados apple brandy within this family too. If you see “single cask” on the label, it means that the aging in oak casks was done in a single and not a blend.
AOC Calvados Domfrontais
The Domfrontais Appellation is located along western Normandy and uses pears along with apples to make the cider. The cider has to contain at least 30% Perry pears and should be distilled in a continuous column still. Unlike the other two appellations, Calvados in this region needs to be aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels.
How is Calvados produced?
Calvados is an apple brandy, therefore apples are crucial when it comes to its production. Cider fruits are usually small and rich in tannins, a substance that critically influences the aging of ciders. The apples and pears are mashed into a pulp to extract the ‘must’ juice (basically, really good apple juice!) which is then fermented in a tank to turn the sugar into alcohol.
The fermentation usually lasts 21 days (minimum), and once the alcohol level reaches 4.5% abv, the ciders are ready to be distilled.
Calvados is a result of distilling the cider in an instrument called ‘the still’ which condenses the collected alcohol vapors into eau-de-vies. There are two stills used to distill the cider- the pot still and the column still. The distillation process produces a colorless but floral and fruity eau-de-vie which is then transferred into oak barrels.
It is here that Calvados is aged for at least 2-3 years where the spirit absorbs the color from the wood tannins, and slowly matures enough to develop finer aromas and tastes.
In order to sell, Calvados apple brandy needs to be at 40% abv (alcohol content), which is achieved by the cellar master through the process of reduction. Throughout the process, the spirit is mixed with purified water to bring down the alcohol percentage and transferred to different oak barrels to get the desired Calvados taste.
In the aging process, the different bouquets grow over time and combine with each other. Calvados is then bottled and ready to be put on the shelf.
There are quite a few variations in Calvados, the most common one being the Cask Strength version where the spirit is taken from the top of the barrel at its natural alcohol percentage without adding any water.
The Calvados Label
In order to get a perfect balance of notes and aromas of oaky, fruity, and floral tastes, the cellar master blends eau-de-vies of different ages together. The blending requires exceptional skills and is carried out through various tastings. When the blends are bottled, the age indicated on the label refers to the age of the youngest Calvados.
In the case of vintage Calvados, the eau-de-vies that are blended together are distilled in the same year, and thus, the year on the label applies to all the blends. Once Calvados apple brandy is bottled, it stops aging.
Aging of Calvados
The aging of an individual Calvados is indicated on the label. The age statements declare the minimum age of the cognac in the bottle. Here are the different categories:
- Calvados Fine, VS, Trois Étoiles, or Trois Pommes: this Calvados apple brandy is aged for at least two years of age in an oak cask.
- Réserve or Vieux: this Calvados has been aged for three years.
- VSOP or Vielle Réserve: when the Calvados is four years old (like Cognac).
- XO, Trés Vieux, or Hors d'âge: the Calvados is at least six years old, but can be sold for much older.
How to Drink Calvados?
Calvados can be enjoyed in many different ways, be it an old vintage or a young Calvados blend. It is often recommended to drink Calvados in a tulip-shaped glass (if you don't have one, use a small wine glass, the kind for white wine) to reveal the different notes and aromas of the spirit. Calvados apple brandy often works as an excellent aperitif or digestif and can be consumed as an appetizer before a meal.
It can also be sipped throughout a meal although traditionally it is to be enjoyed as a whiskey after a hearty meal. Calvados brandy pairs well with several dishes like foie gras or Normandy cheeses (like Camembert), meats and poultry, seafood, and of course, as an after-dinner drink with desserts.
And Mr. Misadventures and I saw many a Norman having some with their coffee in the morning in the local bars and bistros!
Calvados apple brandy also mixes perfectly with cocktails. Originally, Calvados was known as coup du milieu – a quick drink in the middle of a meal – where it was customary to offer a small glass of Calvados to be shot back in a gulp between two main courses. Nowadays, Calvados is a key ingredient in several wonderful classic cocktails in many international hotels and top bars worldwide.
Visit Calvados France and follow the Route do Cidre where you will find that many of the apple cider producers are also Calvados producers (The Calvados production is often started where the cider product ends), and Pommeau producers and have tasting rooms where you can try them all, including bottles of Calvados to satisfy your curiosity!
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Calvados
Calvados vs apple brandy, what is the difference?
Calvados is a type of apple brandy that comes from France. To be a Calvados, the brandy must be produced in the Calvados region of France with apples (and sometimes pears) from Calvados.
Calvados vs Armagnac, what is the difference?
Calvados is made from Calvados apples and Armagnac is made from 10 varieties of white grapes.
Calvados vs Cognac, what is the difference?
Calvados is made from Calvados apples and Cognac is made from 6 varieties of white grapes, specifically the Ugni Blanc grapes varietal.
Should Calvados be chilled?
Calvados is mainly served at room temperature or slightly warmed by holding the glass in your hand, but the apple taste tastes great served chilled as well!
Should Calvados be refrigerated?
No! The bottle of Calvados should be stored in a cool/dry placed and sealed tightly when not in use.
How long can you keep Calvados?
Forever! The shelf life of brandy is indefinite, as long as it is stored correctly.
What does Calvados taste like?
Apples and pears with notes of vanilla.
Calvados Apple Brandy Recipes
Calvados is not just for drinking, although I will share some of my favorite cocktails, you can also cook with it! Check these recipes for making
Cooking with Calvados recipes:
- Drink Calvados has an EXTENSIVE list of really yummy-looking recipes using Calvados!
- Epicurious has a variety of recipes
- There are 3 recipes I love from Food52:
- Bon Appétit's Poulet Vallée d’Auge is divine!
Calvados cocktail recipes:
- Difford's Guide 20 best Calvados recipes
- Calvados Old Fashioned from Vine Pair
- Calvados Sidecar from Liquor.com
- Normandy Flower from Gastronom
- Many delicious Calvados cocktails at My Bartender
- Imbibe Magazine has 10 recipes for the fall using Calvados
- And finally, Absolut drinks has a huge list of Calvados drinks
How about you? Have you ever tried Calvados, the apple brandy from France? Do you like it? Do tell!
Like it? PIN it!
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