We aren't talking about Calvados, but everything we are talking about is part of Calvados.
What if I told you there was a magical land in the clouds, protected by a sea and white cliffs, a place with undulating hills of fruit orchards, a place whose citizens live to make butter, cheese and artisanal spirits?
If you look in the pages of the Silmarillion, you won’t find it. However, if you look on any half decent map of butter production, you’ll find Normandy, the region of France that makes Calvados. If you are only looking for the Trivial Pursuit (the thing you’ve heard of is probably the answer) definition of Calvados, it’s French apple brandy. That is good enough for the dispassionate C- student however within the world of Calvados, you’ll find every lesson of import and every topic of debate currently popular in the spirits world is addressed in Calvados.
Square & Rectangles
Calvados is a French apple brandy. Brandy is anything distilled from fruit. Cognac is another type of French grape brandy, kirschwasser is a specific type of cherry brandy, slivovitz from plum, and Pisco another from grapes— it’s quite easy to argue that cachaça that is also a brandy because it is fresh squeezed juice. It's "arguable," because it's a vague and far reaching idea, all spirits are either brandy (made from fruit) or whisk(e)y (made from grain). This argument is similar to any “there are only two types of people in the world” statements, as specious as those statements are, we all have one or two that we find comfort in. For example, the one I love is, "there are the people that know that the film Network foretold that bizarro modern world in which we live and there are those that don’t understand that the 1970s created the best movies ever.
Appellations: AOC when French
Calvados is more than just a French apple brandy, it is a protected appellation for spirits. That is to say, the production and labeling of Calvados is regulated by laws and one of the many things forbidden is calling an apple brandy from elsewhere Calvados. It seems every producer wants a protected appellation, and many get rewritten every 20 years or so (don't quote out of date appellations) but Calvados further divides itself by content of the must, age and the type of still being used. The three and a half types of Calvados defined by the French AOC or appellation contrôlée (in short) are:
AOC Calvados- most Calvados, frequently column distilled (lighter body, more efficient distillation) and two years minimum aging
AOC Pays d’Auge- less Calvados, double pot still distillation required(heavier, more full bodied), six weeks fermented (creates more subtle flavor) and two years minimum
AOC Domfrontais - very little Calvados, must be at least 30% pears and a minimum of three years aging
Pommeau: a mistelle like Pineau des Charentes wherein apple juice is fortified with Calvados to make a light sweet aperitif
Oh shit, you taking notes? Yep, Calvados can also be made with pears, and most have pears as a portion of the distillate. There is always an exception to every rule you learn: Calvados is French apple Brandy except for when it also has pears. That aside, all you need to know is Calvados is from Normandy and Scotch is from Scotland. However, unlike Scotch that competes with a world of great single malts, Calvados doesn’t have a deep field of apple brandies with witch to compete.
Acidity is Good
The rest of the world doesn’t really grow (commercially) the 200 types of apples that are used for Calvados. Why not? Because the rest of the world likes eating apples and Calvados apples, those that ideal to ferment and distill, are more brutally sour and spiteful than political discussions on Facebook. They are barely edible by livestock, they are hard, hard enough to crack the wood of the cider presses that crush them. This acidity is good for Calvados. A spirit needs acidity to age well, that is to say: leach sugars from barrels. Higher sugar, less character driven clear spirits age to taste only like wood. Spirits with acidity stare at a barrel like a two bandits is a spaghetti western, each tough and unyielding. But instead of of a shootout, they hangout together for fifteen years until they perfectly balance each other. I have have had other non-French apple brandies, and with a couple exceptions: Laird’s Applejack, and, to prove the value of blind tasting, I was impressed by Malvados (but wouldn't had been fair to it had I seen the label) most of those other folks are just distilling the sweet apple leftovers. And while distilling leftovers is indeed the exact ethos of the distiller, I say, "don’t be serving me no meatloaf and saying it’s better than steak," dig? Red Delicious, aren’t, and after that, they can only be functional if distilled— not enjoyable. Or, **in Werner Herzog accent:** The potent wood used for aging will trample the hopes and dreams of the weak spirit like a flower under the toes of the elephant.
Calvados is aged is oak barrels and Calvados challenges the ways that other spirits think of spirits. First off, aging happens in wood. It’s not that spirits don’t change after being bottled, but that isn’t aging, it’s called resting. If ever you see the statement “years old” that refers to how long the spirit has been in wood. For example, I could pick up a gold plated phone right now and order up a bottle of 1930 vintage Armagnac, there is plenty out there. However, it won’t be eighty six year old Armagnac, it will have been sitting in a glass demijohn for almost all of it’s life. Though the vintage would be from eighty six years ago, the spirit would only be the age that it has spent in wood. Calvados is subject to interesting travels through barrels. For example, new spirit, right off the still might go into a brand new barrel— but only for a month or so. That new oak punch is so powerful that it can override a subtle spirit like Calvados. The spirit would then be racked into older, and often increasing larger barrels. As Calvados is blended to an ideal aroma and flavor, it may spend time in a several thousand liter barrel. Unlike Bourbon which uses the same size barrel once or Scotch that uses a few different barrels a few times, a barrel in a Calvados distillery might be used a dozen times in as many years. This is the wood management version of a brain breaking Fibonacci Sequence. And the confusion doesn’t stop there.
Within one brand of Calvados, you’ll find declassified products, blends and hard age statements. This is a special little thing that many spirits do, but Calvados is upfront. Calvados shows up to the first date with a note from the therapist of everything you can expect. The rules are code in some ways, for example the basics are:
Fine: at least a blend that is a minimum of two years old
Vieux or Réserve: a blend that is a minimum of three years old
VO, Vieille Réserve, or VSOP: a blend that is a minimum of four years old
XO, Napoléon, Hors d'Age, or Age Inconnu: must be at least six years old
In addition to these categories for blends, some Calvados will use a numerical age statement and some others with be vintage dated. How about some examples to make sense of that word salad?
A Vieux Calvados can’t have ant distillate younger than three years, however can be much older on average
If a VSOP, with the the whole blend being Calvados that was five and six years old had a drop of three year, it would become a Vieux
A Calvados that is completely ten years old could be labeled as a ten yr or XO or Napoleon BUT if it was vintage dated, for example 2006, that would mean that all of the apples were harvested, fermented and distilled in 2006 and aged for ten years in wood. A splash distilled in 2003 could go into that ten year, but then I wouldn’t be a vintage dated anymore.
This is all minutiae, it’s all about perceived value. You might find that a heavier, older Calvados suits you but twenty years is too old, you might find that you like the sharp nose and bright flavors of a Fine Calvados (especially in cocktails— these designations are just clues to get you the expression you like. In blind tests I have seen six people in a row choose a different favorite Calvados from age three to twenty.
I'll say it, but I won't be the first, "classic cocktails featuring Calvados aren't very good." They aren't bad, they just have the values of a different time. Take the Widow's Kiss for, please. Seriously, way too sweet, really needs bitters to help dry it out and a smaller amount of the liqueurs that sweeten it. Calvados is best explored in classic cocktails as a substitution for Cognac. A Vieux Carre, for example, with Calvados instead of Cognac is a much more dynamic cocktail. Pommeau by the way, is a great sweetener for an Old Fashioned. But Calvados is often absent from menus because of cost. This is but another reason to use split base spirit cocktails and also just allow for a few baller drinks on the menu.
Value & Cost
I can not recommend the cheapest bottle of any spirit. Lets just pull a number from the air, how about “4?” There are about 4 lbs of apples in a bottle of Calvados. If you spend time in juice shops, watching a small kale shrub disappear into a pint glass on the other end of a fancy lawnmower, well, then you understand the basics of how much product goes into each bottle. Calvados apples are crushed and fermented over a period of four to six weeks. The cider produced at the end of the month will only be about 6% ABV. That cider will be distilled into a spirit and aged for several years. The distiller has to eat sooo much butter just sitting around waiting for it to “become Calvados.” After all that, bottle it up, pay taxes in a couple countries, ship it and give a cut to a distributor and a retailer. This is why $30 for an entry level bottle of Calvados is, to put it in strict economic terms: a fucking miracle. But there is another lesson here that is also true of almost all spirits categories, though old age statements offer diminishing returns for novices (and often experts) paying just 15% more than the entry level moves you from the “value brand,” category to a “world class bottle,” category. Sans verbosity: $20-30 Calvados, OK, $35-50 Calvados, awesome.
Farm to Table
To use various useless statistics to explain Normandy (the region that contains Calvados and the 4 other departments allowed to produce it) think of it like this: Normandy is as small as Maryland, but as dense as Washington State. So, if you’ve blinked and missed Maryland on your way to NYC or gone mad in the endless nothingness of Eastern Washington you get the idea. It’s as farm as a region of three million people can be. And filling up that region with trees taking up to five years to produce fruit that can live to be a hundred, well, you can safely say that everyone with a hand in Calvados knows how to drive a tractor. Is this important? Nah, not really. But it’s whatever the farmer version of “sexy” is. Spirits made from fresh fruit are directly tied to the earth and intense care for well aged plants, their soil and their climate. Corn can and will grow anywhere. Some of my Portlandia neighbors grow corn in their backyards, even though it spends six months in drought and six months listening to the Smiths in the pissing rain, it still thrives. Fruit requires a more direct touch, it’s ready when it’s ready, it doesn’t and shouldn’t travel far and it’s a luxury. Spirits based on fresh fruit are spirits guided by farmers.
Part of luxury drinking is looking good doing it. If there was ever an official spirit of the smoking jacket, it’s Calvados. Well-aged Calvados is one of the only spirits that I think benefits from the comically oversized brandy snifter enjoyed by monocle clad Edwardian oddballs. Like a baby hedgehog, old Calvados has a lovely nose that is profoundly subtle. That, my friends is called “smilie fatigue,” it happens close to the end of an article. Old Calvados actually benefits from the intense focusing of the nose that the giant snifter produces. For the younger stuff, I like a Glencairn glass or what I drink everything out of, the stemless chardonnay glass.
Calvados isn’t on trend, and for reasons regarding the ass pain of production, it never will be. That said, it has alway been a classic style, little black dress, cufflinks or skee ball, everyone like skee ball. My grandmother drinks it, James Bond drank it in On her Majesty’s Secret Service and wherever the weather is a little shittier than usual and the food is a little better than usual, they drink it. There is no food, and to a greater extent, no dessert with which Calvados doesn’t pair nicely. Small drams are a classic palate cleanser between dining courses, a tradition the French call “Trompe le Monde,”… is the kind of lie you can tell at the end of a 2200 word article. They actually call it “le trou Normand.” And after D-Day, the Allies found it quite comforting. That’s just a few ways that Calvados is the universal donor that way, a miracle of nature in others and a verbose example of everything you have ever learned about spirits.