What is Calvados?
Calvados is a French brandy made from distilling hard apple cider. For over a thousand years cider has been brewed in northwest France, specifically the Normandy region. Eventually the French took to distilling their cider as many other societies did with their fermented beverages.
This was mostly a local operation until the phylloxera epidemic devastated grape vines all over France in the late 19th Century. With wines suffering in quality (and therefore Cognacs and other grape brandies), calvados gained a new popularity and started to gain traction beyond Normandy.
There are almost 1000 varieties of apples grown in Normandy and a batch of calvados may use 50 or 100 of these varieties. The apples range from sweet to tart to bitter and many of them are inedible and would be considered crabapples in the U.S. Blending the different apple characteristics affects the final flavor and aroma profile of the calvados.
Either a single distillation in a column still or a double distillation in an alembic pot still is used depending on which region the calvados is from. Calvados is distilled to about 140 proof before it is set in oak casks for aging. In some cases caramel color is used on the final product as well as flavoring agents such as wood chips.
There are three main regions for calvados as specified by the Appellation D'origine Contrôlée (AOC):
Calvados - About two-thirds of calvados is produced in this AOC region. Single column distillation is used and the spirit has to be aged a minimum of two years.
Calvados Pays D'Auge - For this classification there are more stringent controls to promote higher quality. Double distillation is used in pot stills along with at least two years of aging. Flavoring agents are tightly regulated.
Calvados Domfrontais - A minimum of 30% pears must be used and often the majority of the fruit is pears. There is a three year minimum for aging.
In order to tell how old a calvados is there are some designations that are used on the label. These designations are used rather loosely so treat them as guidelines as to how old the spirit is:
Fine - aged a minimum of 2 years
Reserve or Vieux - aged a minimum of 3 years
VO or VSOP - 4 years minimum aging
XO, Napoleon, or Hors d'age - 6 years of aging at least but can be a lot older
Vintage calvados is from a single year and not blended. These are produced only when the apple/pear harvest has been uncommonly good. The label will display the year.
Calvados is usually drunk neat as an aperitif before a meal or as a digestif after a meal. In Normandy small amounts are drunk between courses of very large and very long meals.
Due to the continuing cocktail renaissance, calvados consumption has risen as a result of old calvados cocktails gaining new popularity and new cocktails being developed to use calvados. There are also quite a few applejack cocktails where you can switch out the applejack for calvados. Calvados is usually slightly drier than applejack so be aware of this if you make the switch.
Probably my favorite way to drink calvados is after a meal in a French restaurant with some tarte tatin and a cup of very hot black coffee. How do you take your calvados? Neat or in a cocktail?