Calvados (spirit)

Calvados is an apple brandy from the French région of Basse-Normandie or Lower Normandy.


Apple orchards and brewers are mentioned as far back as the 8th century by Charlemagne. The first known Norman distillation was carried out by "Lord" de Gouberville in 1554, and the guild for cider distillation was created about 50 years later in 1606. In the 17th century the traditional ciderfarms expanded but taxation and prohibition of cider brandies were enforced elsewhere than Brittany, Maine and Normandy. The area called "Calvados" was created after the French Revolution, but "Eau de vie de cidre" was already called "calvados" in common usage. In the 19th century output increased with industrial distillation and the working class fashion for "Café-calva". When a phylloxera outbreak devastated the vineyards of France and Europe, calvados experienced a "golden age". During World War I cider brandy was made for armaments. The appellation contrôlée regulations officially gave calvados a protected name in 1942. After the war many cider-houses and distilleries were reconstructed, mainly in the Pays d'Auge. Many of the traditional farmhouse structures were replaced by modern agriculture with high output. The calvados appellation system was revised in 1984 and 1996. Pommeau got its recognition in 1991; in 1997 an appellation for Domfront with 30% pears was created.

Process of fabrication

Calvados is distilled from specially grown and selected apples, of which there are over 200 named varieties. It is not uncommon for a Calvados producer to use over 100 specific varieties of apple to produce their Calvados. The apples used are either sweet (such as the Rouge Duret variety), tart (such as the Rambault variety), or bitter (such as the Mettais, Saint Martin, Frequin, and Binet Rouge varieties), with the latter category of apple being inedible. The reason the bitter apples are used is that if all sweet apples were used the resulting liquor would be too sweet, like apple jack. A typical Calvados recipe might include 30% sweet apples, 40% tart apples, and 30% bitter apples; another recipe might include 40% sweet, 20% tart, and 40% bitter.

The fruit is picked (usually by hand) and pressed into a juice that is fermented into a dry cider. It is then distilled into eau de vie. After two years aging in oak casks, it can be sold as Calvados. The longer it is aged, the smoother the drink becomes. Usually the maturation goes on for several years. A half-bottle of twenty-year-old Calvados can easily command the same price as a full bottle of ten-year-old Calvados.

Double and single distillation

The appellation of AOC calvados authorizes double distillation for all calvados but it is required for the AOC calvados Pays d’Auge.

  • Double distillation is carried out in a traditional alembic pot still, called either "l'alambic à repasse" or "charentais". This process gives the spirit complexity and renders it suitable for longer aging.
  • Single continuous distillation in a column still. It gives the calvados a fresh and clean apple flavour but with less complexity.

Producing regions and legal definitions

Like most French wines, Calvados is governed by appellation contrôlée regulations. There are three appellations for calvados:

  • The AOC calvados area includes all of the Calvados, Manche, and Orne départements and parts of Eure, Mayenne, Sarthe, and Eure-et-Loir.
    • AOC calvados makes up for over 70 percent of the total production.
    • Minimum of two years ageing in oak barrels.
    • The terroir, geographical area, is defined.
    • The apples and pears are defined cider varieties.
    • The procedures in production like pressing, fermentation, distillation and ageing is regulated.
    • Usually single column distillation.
  • The more restrictive AOC calvados Pays d'Auge area is limited to the east end of the département of Calvados and a few adjoining districts.
    • Extensive quality control—the basic rules for AOC calvados together with several additional requirements.
    • Ageing for minimum of two years in oak barrels.
    • Double distillation in an alembic pot-still.
    • Produced within the designated area in Pays d'Auge.
    • A minimum of six weeks fermentation of the cider.
    • Flavour elements are controlled.
  • AOC calvados Domfrontais reflects the long tradition of pear orchards in the area, resulting in a unique fruity calvados. The regulation is similar to the AOC calvados and the column still is used.
    • A minimum of 30 percent pears from the designated areas is used.
    • A three-year minimum of ageing in oak barrels.
    • The orchards must consist of at least 15 percent of pear trees (25 percent from the sixteenth harvest).
  • Fermier "farm-made" calvados—some quality minded producers both inside and outside the Pays d’Auge make "calvados fermier", which indicates that the calvados is entirely made on the farm in a traditional agricultural way according to high quality demands.

Grades of quality

The age on the bottle refers to the youngest constituent of the blend. A blend is often comprised of old and young calvados. Producers can also use the terms below to refer to the age.

  • "Fine", "Trois étoiles ***", "Trois pommes"—at least two years old.
  • "Vieux"—"Réserve"—at least three years old.
  • "V.O." "VO", "Vieille Réserve", "V.S.O.P." "VSOP"—at least four years old.
  • "Extra", "X.O." "XO", "Napoléon", "Hors d'Age" "Age Inconnu"—at least six years old. Often sold much older.

High quality calvados usually has parts which are much older than that mentioned. Calvados can be made from a single (generally, exceptionally good) year. When this happens, the label often carries that year.


Calvados is the basis of the tradition of le trou Normand, or "the Norman hole". This is a small drink of Calvados taken between courses in a very long meal, sometimes with apple sorbet, supposed to re-awaken the appetite. Calvados can be served as aperitif, blended in drinks, between meals, as a digestif, or with coffee. Well-made calvados should naturally be reminiscent of apples and pears, balanced with flavours of ageing. The less aged calvados distinguishes itself with its fresh apple and pear aromas. The longer the calvados is aged, the more the taste resembles that of any other aged brandy. As calvados ages, it may become golden or darker brown with orange elements and red mahogany. The nose and palate are delicate with concentration of aged apples and dried apricots balanced with butterscotch, nut and chocolate aromas.

Calvados in popular culture

In his historical documentary novel G.I., author Lee Kennett discusses the calvados distilled out by French farmers, usually at 140 proof or even higher, which was a new experience for the liberating American soldiers. The GI's claimed it was made from "ground up genades". He further states that some GI's burned it in their cigarette lighters.

In the 1963 novel On Her Majesty's Secret Service by Ian Fleming, James Bond drinks a glass of ten-year-old Calvados.

Calvados is the main characters' favourite drink in Erich Maria Remarque's novel Arch of Triumph.

Calvados is often referred to in the writings of mystic George Gurdjieff.

Cornelius Bear is known to have a stash of several well-aged bottles of calvados in the webcomic Achewood.

Inspector Maigret often stops in to a cafe for a glass of Calvados in Georges Simenon's novels and short stories.

On the album Us Against the Crown by State Radio, there is a song called "Calvados Chopper." It speaks of a man who is driving a motorcycle while "hopped up on Calvados."

In Astérix et les Normands (Asterix and the Normans/Vikings), volume 9 of the popular Astérix comic books, Calvados is the national drink of the Vikings, and they are depicted drinking it out of the hollowed skulls of their dead enemies.

In the BBC television series Secret Army, the proprietor of the Cafe Candide and agent of the Resistance, Albert Foiret (Bernard Hepton), keeps a supply of Calvados specially for his high ranking German customers. It is the favourite drink of Sturmbannführer Ludwig Kessler (Clifford Rose) who, in the series, is head of the SS in Brussels.

Calvados is the regimental drink of The Royal Canadian Hussars and Le Régiment de Maisonneuve, having been taken up as the unit passed through Normandy following the D-Day invasion. Known as Le Trou [], it is normally taken as an apéritif between courses at a regimental dinner.

Calvados is favourite drink of main characters in French rival of The Da Vinci Code, La promesse de l'ange by Frederic Lenoir.

A bottle of Calvados is given to Steve McQueen, an American soldier, by Nick Adams a Polish DP in "Hell is for Heroes".

Authour of Pantheon, Martin Laidlaw, cites once drinking a bottle of calvados in his autobiographical short story, "My kingdom for a lie."

In the manga series, Detective Conan, the Black Organization members are all codenamed after alcohol. One of their snipers was named Calvados.

Central character Thomas Brue sips calvados in John Le Carre's 2008 novel "A Most Wanted Man."

See also

Further reading

External links


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