Along with wines, cognac and champagne, France is also known for its delicious apple brandy – Calvados. The ingenious French used the cool and damp climate of Normandy to their advantage and created a drink from specially grown and selected apples whose history dates back nearly 500 years.
The first mention of apple orchards and brewers in these parts dates back to the 8th century. The first recorded mention of the apple brandy dates back to Lord de Gouberville who mentioned it in his diary in 1553. In the diary entry, Gilles de Gouberville talks about the culture of cider apple trees and new varieties from the Basque country. Soon after, a guild for cider distillation was created in 1606.
During the 17th century, traditional cider farms developed, producing their own cider brandies. However, taxation and prohibition forced the producers to trade with the brandy only in the areas of Brittany, Maine, and Normandy.
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After the French Revolution, the Calvados region was created and in that time cider eau-de-vie (a clear, colorless, light flavored fruit brandy produced by fermentation and double distillation) which was mainly a farmer’s drink, was already called “calvados” by the general population.
With the liberalization of trade, calvados became popular in Paris and the name was soon used for all cider eau-de-vie from Normandy.
In the 19th century, with the industrial distillation and the working class taste for so-called café-calva (a cup of coffee with a teaspoon of Calvados poured on top, accompanied by a small brandy to sip) the production of the drink increased.
The golden age of Calvados was at the end of the 19th century when the epidemic of phylloxera destroyed the vineyards forcing the French to turn their attention to the eau-de-vie of Normandy.
At the beginning of the 20th century, cider eau-de-vie was a major asset for the economy of Normandy. The quality of the cider improved and was more controlled, thanks to centrifugation and filtration.
During World War I, cider brandy was requisitioned for use in armaments due to its alcohol content. In 1942 French government issued a decree recognizing the Calvados Pays d’Auge as Certified Designation of Origin which protected and regulated its method and region of production and strengthened the drink’s image. It also meant that it was protected from war requisitions.
After the war, many cider houses and distilleries were reconstructed in Normandy’s Pays d’Auge and many of the traditional farmhouse structures were replaced with modern facilities with high output.
The star of Calvados is, of course, the apple, although pears can also be thrown in the mix. The apples used to produce the drink must come from Normandy where there are over 200 named varieties. It is not uncommon for the calvados producers to use over 100 varieties of apples to create the drink.
The apples and pears are collected in the autumn and pressed into a juice that is then fermented into a dry cider that has a lower alcohol content. The cider is then distilled into eau-de-vie and aged in oak casks where it has to remain for at least two years to pick up color and additional aromas and flavors before earning the title “Calvados.”
The longer it ages, the smoother the drink becomes and usually the “maturation” lasts for several years. The longer the Calvados is aged the more it resembles of any other brandy. It becomes golden or darker brown and the aroma of aged apples is balanced with nut and chocolate aromas.
Calvados from the AOC Pays d’Auge, which is considered to be of the highest quality, requires double distillation in a traditional Charentais pots while AOC Calvados only requires single distillation.
Now that you know your history its time to enjoy Calvados. It can be served before a meal as an aperitif, mixed in drinks, between meals, as a digeastif after a meal, or with coffee. In Normandy, Calvados is taken between courses of a meal to reawaken the appetite, sometimes poured over a scoop of apple sorbet.
Calvados should be served and tasted in a tulip shaped glass at room temperature. The curve of the glass will preserve all the aroma of the drink and well-made Calvados will have the aromas of apples and the flavors of aging.
Have in mind that calvados producers also bottle “pommeau” – Calvados that aged only one year and that drink, mixed with fermented apple juice, is typically served as an aperitif.
The beauty of Calvados is that you can enjoy it in different situations. In the restaurant during a delicious meal, at a bar with friends sipping a cocktail made with calvados or even at home, enjoying a movie or relaxing after a day’s work. Try it. Enjoy it.