Calvados: Getting To The Core Of French Brandy

Shireen Jamooji | July 29, 2022

Hundreds of apples go into making every bottle of this spirit so you can get a true taste of Normandy

If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, then what would a glass of Calvados do? Well, chances are it would make you feel pretty amazing. Calvados is a type of brandy that’s made by distilling apple cider (and sometimes pear cider as well) and once these products are distilled you end up with a concentrated cider which is high in alcohol content. This is then added to wooden barrels to round out the flavours and give them even more depth. 

This spirit is traditionally homed to Normandy in France and in particular three different regions. Calvados, where you can distil the drink however you wish as long as it’s aged for at least two years. The second is Calvados Pays D’auge, where the spirit is distilled twice and aged for a minimum of two years. The third area is Calvados Domfrontais, where it’s distilled once but aged for at least three years with the most important factor being that it must contain at least 30% distilled pear cider.

There are over 100 or so different types of apples used in these regions that fall under four categories: sweet, dry, acidic and tart. The aim of the perfect Calvados is to create a flavour that’s the perfect balance between all four profiles. 

There are different stories regarding the origin of the name but the most popular one dates back to the 1580s and suggests that the drink was named after a ship in the Spanish Armada that was wrecked on the shores of Normandy fleeing from the British. The galleon was named San El Salvador and over time the name evolved to Calvados as we know it today. However, records of the distillate go all the way back to 1553 to the diary of Gilles Picot, the Lord de Gouberville, a Norman squire. And it didn’t truly gain popularity until the 19th century, so its true origins are a bit hazy. 

Until then, Cognac had enjoyed the pride of place as France’s signature liqueur. Distilled from white wine in a very specific geographical region it was a highly valued French export until phylloxera aphids destroyed the vineyards in the 19th century allowing Calvados to gain popularity. Prior to that, King Louis XIV had passed a law forbidding the export of Calvados – probably on the advice of one of his ministers from Cognac – and somehow that rule stuck. Even today there are 200 million bottles of Cognac for every six million Calvados in production.

Due to its excellent digestive properties, Calvados is often enjoyed as an apéritif or appetiser before or after a meal, although in the modern context it’s most often treated as an after-dinner enjoyment – not unlike a fine cognac. 

The wide range of apple varieties that are available to use in Calvados offers a slew of flavour possibilities. That’s why every batch of the spirit has a nuanced profile and flavours. Each stage of the process subtly alters the final product with blends, ages and even production methods changing how it tastes. So when you do sample a bottle of Calvados, keep in mind that you are tasting the essence of its region and the hundreds of apples that have come together for a perfect sip.