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Calvados has been the pride of Normandy for centuries. While many of its distilleries have rich, generations-long legacies, and boast unparalleled craftsmanship, the French brandy has seen a surge of renewed appreciation amongst U.S. consumers and beverage professionals.
While global sales increased by 4.7 percent in 2022, in the U.S., sales jumped 70 percent, making it the second-largest export market after Germany. The Calvados industry has led initiatives to highlight its merits—focusing on the dynamism of the category, the spirit’s inherent sustainability, and small scale production methods—but the driving force behind the trend has come from innovation on the part of both producers and bartenders.
“As more and more bartenders use Calvados in their cocktails, [its] image renews,” says Guillaume Drouin, the third-generation owner of Calvados Christian Drouin. “We have conducted a lot of work with bartenders, writing books with them, organizing cocktail competitions, hosting them at the distillery to spread our passion and knowledge. Calvados is a great historic spirit with a long tradition. This is something we are very proud of. At the same time, it is important for the category to be able to bring a fresh image and communication to create more curiosity in Calvados.”
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The Calvados Spirits Council (IDAC) has created “Introducing Calvados: Authentic Spirits from Europe,” a new initiative funded in part by the European Union to raise awareness of European GI spirits. The program encompasses dinners, masterclasses, trade shows—it will appear at Bar Convent Brooklyn in June—in-store promotions, and other events, to help Calvados-curious buyers learn more about the spirit and cement its place behind the bar. Until then, SevenFifty Daily spoke with some of the region’s leading producers for a beverage professional’s guide to Calvados.
An Encounter With French Tradition
Spirit drinks are deeply rooted in European culture and tradition, and are produced across all EU countries for both domestic consumption and export. The U.S. remains the top export market for European GI spirits as more American consumers seeking expertise, authenticity, and know-how.
Despite the vast potential of all 250 geographical indications, exports to the U.S. are primarily centered on a few, like Cognac. However, these EU spirits are well positioned to align with current American consumption trends, offering quality products that uphold sustainable values and provide interesting ingredients for the vibrant cocktail scene.
Calvados is a prime example of the promise that European GI spirits hold, which is why it’s the flagship spirit of this EU campaign, which aims to create positive awareness and recognition of European GI spirits as authentic and sustainable products. It also works to enhance knowledge about the high-quality standards of European protected designations of origin in the United States.
Calvados is essentially distilled cider, or eau de vie de cidre, made with apples or pears grown throughout 20,000 designated acres of France’s Normandy region. It’s protected by three different AOCs: Calvados AOC, which accounts for 70 percent of production; Calvados Pays d’Auge, which specifies a product that’s double-distilled in a copper pot still (as opposed to a column still); and Calvados Domfrontais, which is distilled from a majority of pears.
“Calvados was born from an unlikely encounter of two traditions,” explains Serge Der Sahaguian, the CEO and director general of Spirit France Diffusion. Firstly, cider making in Normandy, which led to distilling the drink in the name of preservation, a practice that dates to 1553 in the region. As cider makers worked, empty rum casks from the French Caribbean piled up in the Le Havre port and served as containers for the distilled cider. Much like the story of Cognac’s evolution, storing cider distillate in barrels had auspicious consequences.
The name came about after the Calvados département, or parish, was established in the region in 1789. But Calvados didn’t gain prominence until the latter half of the 19th century when phylloxera devastated the vineyards of France and the first industrial Calvados distillery opened.
Today, strict regulations govern Calvados’ production. In accordance with its AOCs, Calvados must be produced in Normandy with fruits grown in the region. There are about 230 different legally recognized varieties of apples, divided into four classifications: sharps, sweets, bittersharps, and bittersweets, and about 139 varieties of pears.
Age-Old Production Meets Modern Ingenuity
Once the apples are harvested, cleaned, and pressed to extract the juice, or must, it’s fermented for at least 21 days before being distilled. (The minimum fermentation for Calvados Domfrontais is 30 days.) After distillation, the spirit must age for at least two years in French oak barrels, though many producers age it much longer. It’s bottled at a minimum of 80 proof.
Each bottle is essentially a blend of various cider eaux-de-vie. Some producers also release vintages from individual years. Calvados is classified by age. Fine or VS Calvados is aged at least two years; VSOP bottlings spend at least four years in oak; Calvados aged more than six years is XO. Younger expressions are defined by fresh apple flavor profiles, while older Calvados offers more baked apple notes.
Production, of course, is seasonal. Ciders produced in the autumn are kept in cider vats and tuns for several months, then their age is reflected in the brandy. “Distillation of the youngest ciders gives simple, fruity spirits that are well suited to sale as very young Calvados,” says Drouin. “Distillation continues until June and sometimes even into the autumn to produce Calvados of more robust structure, with more clearly marked acidity. Calvados made in this way has greater potential for aging and makes it possible to create the more mature vintages, our firm’s specialty.”
But aging is only one way to influence flavor. Even with strict regulations, there’s room for experimentation. Stéphanie Jordan, the cofounder of Avallen Spirits, points to how Calvados makers, long bound to tradition, are taking pages from other categories known for innovation.
“This shake-up began some five-plus years ago with the emergence of new, younger, fresher style brandies tailored to resonate with the preferences and aesthetics of the 21st-century drinkers,” says Jordan. “Some were launched by established heritage family producers as the latest generation came to the helm, others by industry innovators finding their way into Normandy, sensing the category was ripe for new propositions. New cask finishes started to make their way out of the cellars—some so good they stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the finest Scotches.”
Cask-finishings are largely driving innovation. Boulard, for one, offers its VSOP with a rye-whiskey cask finish, a wheated-whiskey cask finish, and a virgin Mizunara cask finish. The Expérimental de Christian Drouin series features collaborations with Hine Cognac, Springbank Whisky, and rum producer Foursquare. Pierre Martin Neuhaus, the owner of Domaine du Coquerel, which his grandfather acquired in 1971, gives their 2015 Cask Finish Collection credit for attracting new customers, especially thanks to its new modern packaging.
An Inherently Sustainable Spirit
Another way Calvados speaks to today’s consumer is through its sustainability proposition. Sustainability isn’t a strategy for Calvados producers; it’s modus operandi. “The Calvados industry’s carbon footprint is absolutely positive—unique for any spirit in the world—due to the large plantations of apple tree orchards that capture huge quantities of CO2 in the atmosphere,” says Der Sahaguian.
Donatien Ferrari, the communications manager for La Martiniquaise Bardinet, the family company that produces and sells Busnel Calvados Pays d’Auge, estimates a hectare of apple trees captures between 35 and 50 tons of carbon over 25 years. Furthermore, orchards prevent soil erosion and contribute to biodiversity, particularly of bees and other pollinators. Careful measures are taken to protect the fruit. AOC regulations prohibit irrigation or pesticides, ensuring the apples are brimming with beneficial microbes.
“This innate microbial richness on the apple skins obviates the need for additional yeast during cider fermentation, relying instead on the indigenous yeast already present—a testament to the orchards’ natural ecosystem,” says Jordan.
Centuries ago, before there was legislation protecting standards, Calvados was a rough-edged spirit. It was commonly drunk as Café Calva, a shot of Calvados in coffee in the morning. But Calvados is a versatile drink. Jordan has noticed a cocktail of Calvados, apple juice, lemon juice, and sugar emerging as a standard bearer.
Der Sahaguian sees a growing trend in using older Calvados in place of other base spirits in boozy stirred drinks, like an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan. Neuhaus says young fresh, fruity expressions are ideal for sipping as an aperitif or in cocktails. His explorations have included many highlights: an Apple Martini with Coquerel VS, apple juice, lemon and simple syrup; a Coquerel VS with tonic water; and an Espresso Martini using VSOP—a call back that the Calvados-drinkers of old, sipping their Café Calvas, would appreciate.
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