What is Calvados?
Literally speaking, it’s apple cider distilled into Brandy. But, in reality, it’s much more than that. For starters, it’s not made from just one kind of apple. There are well over 100 different apple varieties permitted in its production. And not only does the spirit differ by area in which the apples are grown, the production and aging methods also vary. In a similar fashion as their spirited neighbors, Calvados styles can be as binary as Cognac versus Armagnac.
Long story short, this spirit’s got some history. While there are different theories behind the origins of the name - the most popular one involves an armada and the shipwrecks that followed. Official records of the distillate date back to 1553 thanks to Gilles Picot, the Lord de Gouberville (yes, pronounced just like that). 50 years later a guild for this distillation was born and the world would soon come to know the worthy spirit that is Calvados.
About Them Apples...
Apples used for production are divided into four categories which are always blended when destined for Calvados. Bitter varieties contribute flavor while tart varieties offer acidity, and sweet varieties come packed with sugar to aid fermentation while the rest is simply bittersweet. With triple digits worth of apples to choose from, distillers have the ability to find a harmonious blend that best suits their desired style.
How’s It Made?
Within Normandy there are three appellation designations for Calvados production that each possess their own set of rules.
Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée - or AOC - Calvados
Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée - or AOC - Calvados is the largest of the three spanning most of Normandy west of Rouen. These can be distilled by either pot or column still, but the majority undergo single distillation via the latter. After distillation these are required to spend at least two years aging in oak casks before release.
AOC Calvados Pays d'Auge
Covering a much smaller area within the center of Normandy is the AOC Calvados Pays d'Auge. It is required that these are double distilled in a copper pot still and then spend a minimum of two years aging in oak casks. Calvados productions from this appellation are considered some of the finest in quality offering both concentration and poise with an elegant flavor profile and long finish.
AOC Calvados Domfrontais
AOC Calvados Domfrontais is where you’ll find some pears in the mix. Nestled along Normandy’s western border, these must contain at least 30% Perry pears and, unlike Pays d'Auge, they must be distilled in a continuous column still. Calvados from this appellation must be aged for at least three years in oak casks which contributes to their smoother mouthfeel.
Age is Just a Number
But for Calvados, age can mean any of three categories. When a specific age (in years) is indicated the number reflects the youngest portion, meaning the blend will also include spirit that’s far older than what’s printed on the label. A vintage statement, on the other hand, means that spirit has come from a single year rather than several different ones. Additionally, Calvados can be bottled by age category as listed below.
Fine, Trois Étoiles, Trois pommes, VS ---> 2 years
Réserve, Vieux ---> 3 years
VO, VSOP, Vieille Réserve ---> 4 years
XO, Très Vieux, Extra, Très Vieille Réserve, Napoléon, Hors d’âge ---> 6 years
What to Expect
Between different producers, apple variety blends and age categories, the spectrum is wide. Production can even vary in how the apples are picked.
While some producers rely on Sir Isaac Newton-esque scenes of apples falling from their branches, others will make haste by harvesting with special machinery that will literally shake ‘em off. Nonetheless, when it comes to Calvados, it’s never just a game of comparing apples to apples.
One of the most revered producers from AOC Calvados, Michel Huard’s grandson Jean-Francois Guillouet carries on the family legacy with roughly 30 different varieties of primarily sweet and bittersweet apples. Distilled in a traveling column still before being aged in 400-liter barrels that are so far seasoned they’re nearly black, the end result is a mastery of complexity and structure that’ll live on for the ages.
Northeast from there in the Pays d’Auge, the iconic Calvados production of Famille Dupont is comprised of 13 apple varieties that grow smaller in size due to the poorer soils of chalky marl. Double distilled in a Charente style alembic, the range includes all of the main aging categories and offers some of the most distinguished Calvados bottlings in all the land.
So no matter what your flavor is, there’s a bottle - or several - of Calvados out there to perfectly match your taste preference. Try one out with your newest cocktail creation or sip it neat as you savor the remnants of its rustic beginnings alongside its modern day prestige.
By the way, for the true lovers of the Spirit, Flaviar offers Brandy-themed subscription boxes with hard-to-find brands.