Calvados: A Behind-The-Scenes Look At A Trendy Spirit

By Marie-Aline Prevost

For generations, people in Normandy have distilled their famous cider to create Calvados, one of France's most famous spirits. This iconic Normandy alcohol, which is made from apples and aged in barrels, has received quite the makeover thanks to mixology. However, before we delve into the trendy Calvados cocktails that are popping up throughout the world, let's head to Pays d'Auge to learn about the ingredients that make "Calva" a truly one-of-a-kind drink.

Calvados - The farmer

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The hottest bars around the world are now offering cocktails with evocative names like Big Apple, Heart of Normandy, and Drakkar Rouge. What's the one thing they have in common? Calvados. The famous "Calva" from your grandpa's era has gotten quite the face lift. It is now the most fashionable vintage spirit on offer. Time to head to Pays d'Auge in central Normandy to discover all there is to know about this legendary apple brandy.

Today, I'm meeting with Morgan Rubiard, the Tour Director at Château du Breuil, a main hub for Calvados production. "Château du Breuil produces and sells Calvados throughout the world," Morgan tells me. "Clients from northern countries enjoy the refreshing and subtle, fruity flavor of a young Calvados, which is nevertheless aged in barrels for at least two years! They drink it on its own, like their traditional white spirits—aquavit and vodka. On the other end of spectrum, the Japanese, for example, who love whiskey, prefer our more traditional types of Calvados that have been aged over a long period of time. This Calvados features much more complex aromas of baked apples, spices, and vanilla."

The freelance bartender Guillaume Six, who often works with Château du Breuil, notes that "young customers' enthusiasm for cocktails has been growing consistently since the 2010s, especially among customers aged 18-21. This segment is more interested in sweeter flavors and drinks with a lower alcohol content. Young adults have taken to having a "cocktail hour," or a light-hearted moment in a fun place where they can chat with each other."

The most popular Calvados cocktail is the Normandy mojito, which is made with young Calvados, elderflower liqueur, fresh mint, brown sugar, lime juice, and tonic water.

This is how the "good old Calva" is transformed into a trendy drink. Young Calvados has a strong apple flavor, "which means you can use less. For example, it only takes one ounce of Calvados to make the Normandy mojito as opposed to the two ounces of your typical rum, which is much less aromatic, that are used in the classic mojito," says Guillaume Six. "For the same reason, Calvados liqueur, which is made from Calvados and apple juice and features a sweet flavor and a lower alcohol content, is also very popular in modern mixology," he continues. In response to this new method of drinking Calvados, bartenders are cutting loose and creating sparkling and refreshing "day" cocktails as well as "dessert" versions that are rich, sweet, and even made with cream. 

Different types of Calvados are used, ranging from the youngest to the oldest varieties available, as well as varieties with specific finishes and barrel-aging processes. Calvados also features in simpler recipes that showcase the alcohol's sophisticated taste. The more Calvados is used to make these aperitif cocktails, the slower they are meant to be sipped. 

The magic of the still

As we leave the hangar, we hurry over to meet Cellar Master Philippe Etignard in a stunningly beautiful old building, a former spinning factory that has been converted into a cellar for aging Calvados. Step three: distillation and aging. On the ground floor, we walk into a room lined with oak barrels and vats laid out on a gravel floor.

Because the conditions change every year, the most interesting thing about this business is that we have to adjust our methods each time. There is no one recipe!

Complex fragrances of wood and cooked apples blend together in the room. "The fermentation of the yeast in the cider creates a wide range of aromas. Our job is to capture them through the distilling process," explains Philippe Etignard. We walk into the next room. A giant Charentais still, which is a key part of the cider's PDO Pays d'Auge certification, holds pride of place. The device is impressive and looks like it was designed by a giant mad scientist. The Charentais still serves to concentrate the alcohol. By heating the cider, which has a 5% alcohol content, the still creates a liquid with 70% alcohol known as brandy. "Because the conditions change every year, the most interesting thing about this business is that we have to adjust our methods each time. There is no one recipe!" says the bespectacled cellar master, a mischievous gleam in his eyes.

No matter how you drink it, though, you should always look for high-quality Calvados. But what makes for a "good Calva?" Morgan Rubiard walks us through his production process step by step.

Wash and grate the apples

Step one. The apples are transported from the orchards in bins and poured into one of the factory's large cement holding tanks, creating a multicolored mountain of green, yellow, and red apples! The apples are of different varieties, with flavors ranging from bitter and bittersweet to sweet and tangy. This blend is essential for making the balanced-tasting cider that, once distilled, will serve as the base for a good Calvados. The apples are pushed through a channel where they are washed by a continuous flow of water that brings them inside the hangar. Inside the processing facility, the apples are grated and pressed, containers are emptied and filled again, and assembly belts and tubes wind in every direction. To the left of the entrance, the apples are dropped into a crusher machine. The resulting apple pulp is continuously funneled into a giant press, whose rhythmic action extracts the type of apple juice we call must. The fragrance of apples is at its strongest.

Crushing and blending the must oxygenates the mixture and activates the yeast present in the fruit. This yeast then triggers the natural fermentation process that creates cider.

Next stop, cider.

Step two. The must is transferred via a system of pipes to one of the facility's large stainless steel tanks, where it will gradually transform into cider. "It takes at least three weeks after the must is moved to the tanks," says Morgan Rubiard.


Expert alchemy

The valuable liquid is then transferred to oak barrels, where it will age until it becomes Calvados. "The temperature and humidity level play an important role in the aging process," explains Philippe Etignard. "The drier the air is in the cellar, the more water is evaporated from the barrels. The alcohol levels stagnate or increase. The more humid the cellar, the more alcohol is evaporated. As a result, the alcohol level decreases." Aging the Calvados involves regularly transferring the liquid from one barrel to another to achieve the desired alcohol percentage until bottling.Over time, the aroma of the Calvados starts to emerge, and its color changes from a light gold to a dark amber. The scent of fresh apples, which is very present in a young Calvados, will gradually transform into more complex aromas of cooked apple and wood with notes of vanilla, honey, and walnut.

I really enjoy extracting specific aromas from these spirits

This is where the cellar master's creativity comes into play. The Calvados can be transferred to oak barrels that once contained other alcohols, like whiskey and Sauternes. Calvados from different barrels can also be mixed together to combine their flavors. Naturally, these operations require constant taste tests. "It is important to regularly evaluate the characteristics of the Calvados to create the right blend or transfer the alcohol to another container at the right moment," says Philippe Etignard.


A Calvados for everyone

Clearly, there's a Calvados for everyone, whether you prefer a refreshing taste with fresh apple aromas or a deeper flavor with notes of cooked apple. "I really enjoy cocktails, and my personal favorite is the classic Jack Rose, which is made with Calvados, lemon juice, and grenadine," the cellar master tells me before returning to his "laboratory".

Back in the tasting room, Morgan Rubiard makes me a Calvados tonic. This cocktail features tonic water and a young Calvados with a couple of ice cubes. Every sip bursts with flavor. It's decided. When I get back home, I'm taking my grandfather's "Calva" out of the closet and making a cocktail!

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