Calvados is Normandy’s revered apple cider brandy but it is often overlooked in favour of other eau-de-vie like cognac. In this guide, you will learn everything that you need to know about calvados from its flavours and how to drink it:
- What Is Calvados?
- Calvados History
- What Does Calvados Taste Like?
- How To Serve Calvados
- Similar Drinks & Substitutes
- Benefits Of Calvados
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What Is Calvados?
Calvados is a type of brandy or eau-de-vie that is named after its home region in Normandy. Unlike most other celebrated French brandies like cognac and Armagnac, calvados is made from apple cider rather than wine. Occasionally, it can also be made from pear cider or perry as well.
There are 7,500 hectares of apple and pear orchards that are used for producing calvados. Although most of them are in the Calvados department, they can also be found in neighbouring areas like Manche, Orne, Eure, Mayenne, Sarthe, and Eure-et-Loir.
Calvados has a number of appellations that indicate the geographic zones and techniques used to make it.
One of the most revered and restrictive is Calvados Pays d’Auge, which only permits the use of a cognac-style Charentais copper pot still. Meanwhile, the other appellations allow for the use of a continuous column still instead.
After the cider has been distilled into an eau-de-vie, it must be aged for at least 2 years before it can be recognised as calvados. In the case of the Domfrontais appellation that specialises in using pears, it requires an additional year.
Afterwards, the calvados can be released as a blend of many batches and apple varieties of different ages. Occasionally, it is also bottled as a vintage or “millésime”, which is made from a single year’s harvest.
France’s apple orchards for producing cider can be dated back as early as the 8th century but it wasn’t distilled in Normandy until 1553.
The date of its creation in 1553 is often cited as the 28th March when Gilles Picot, Lord de Gouberville, had written about its distillation after the arrival of new apple varieties from the southern Basque country. A guild called “la corporation des distillateurs d’eau-de-vie de cidre” was founded half a century later in 1606.
Although the department of the same name wasn’t established until after the French Revolution in 1794, the cider brandy had long been commonly referred to as calvados. Indeed, the name comes from the area’s rocky shoreline called “les Rochers du Calvados”.
Interestingly, its etymology is the subject of debate. Locals claim that the name is a corruption of San Salvador, a Spanish armada ship that crashed on the shoreline in 1588. However, it has also been argued that it is derived from the Latin for “Bald” (calva) and “Back” (dossum).
Interestingly, the United Kingdom also has a proud history of producing cider brandy that can be traced back to as early as 1678. Nevertheless, Somerset cider brandy wasn’t officially recognised until 2011 when it received a European protected geographical indication.
Normandy was celebrated from its cider but calvados was typically regarded as brandy for the working class and rural provinces. Indeed, it was often produced by farmers and a local “bouilleur de cru” who would transport a small column still between them by horse and cart.
However, as it was unaffected by the late-19th-century phylloxera outbreak that devastated vineyards throughout France, it was quickly recognised as a viable alternative to other brandy.
Calvados In The 20th Century
Calvados was requisitioned by the government early into the First World War as it was closer to the front lines than other beverages of similar alcoholic content.
However, the alcohol was not used to produce explosives, petrol, or for medicinal purposes with the exception of sedating soldiers during operations. Instead, troops were supplied a daily eau-de-vie ration of 6.25 cl (2.1 Oz) and by 1916, they were given a concoction called gnôle as a vitality tonic to keep warm.
During the Second World War, calvados was recognised with an appellation in 1942, which ensured its protection during the Nazi Occupation. As Normandy was central to the Allies’ foothold into mainland Europe, much of the infrastructure was devastated during the conflict.
However, the foreign presence also greatly contributed to calvados’ prominence today. North American troops took a taste to the brandy and some even received it as gifts from locals for their liberation efforts.
Today, calvados is the official drink of no less than five Canadian regiments, including The Queen’s Own Rifles Of Canada and the Royal Canadian Hussars.
It is often used as a toast to remember fallen comrades. Furthermore, calvados is consumed during regimental dinners as a traditional “trou normand“, which you’ll learn about below.
After the war, some well-known farmhouses seized the opportunity to modernise and expand their facilities during reconstruction. Today, over 50% of calvados production is exported.
How Does Calvados Taste?
Calvados can offer surprisingly varying tastes. Firstly, there are over 230 apple varieties and 139 different types of pear that can be used to make calvados.
Additionally, it can be produced by single-distillation with a continuous column still or double-distillation with a Charentais copper pot still.
Typically, single distillation usually preserves more of the cider’s fruitiness. Meanwhile, double-distillation will strip the rich flavours away in exchange for greater complexity. As the distillate won’t be as strong in flavour, it can receive a greater influence from the oak barrel’s tannins during the ageing process.
An interesting example to demonstrate the differences between single and double distillation can be found when comparing cognac and Armagnac. The Charentais copper still is a cognac invention. However, Armagnac producers tend to favour the continuous column still.
Generally, younger calvados will be more expressive of the fruity characteristics and you will likely taste the apple or pear flavours. As a result, it’s occasionally compared to spiced apple desserts.
On the other hand, calvados may begin to resemble the other brandies listed above as it ages. Indeed, as it absorbs the tannins, it develops depth thanks to additional complexity and nuances brought on by reaching maturity. Consequently, it can deliver flavours of amber, leather, and deep spices.
To learn more about the different varieties of calvados and how certain changes would affect its flavour, check out our guide on how it’s made.
How To Properly Drink Calvados
Firstly, we ensure that we always make it clear in our guides that there is no such thing as a wrong way to drink something if you enjoy it. However, we do offer advice on ways to heighten the experience.
Typically, calvados is served neat at room temperature as a digestif but occasionally as an apéritif, too. However, it is also a growingly popular cocktail ingredient.
Ideally, good quality calvados shouldn’t be chilled as lower temperatures will slow evaporation, which prevents the spirit from releasing aromatic compounds.
Similarly, calvados can occasionally be served on ice. Nevertheless, this risks overly chilling the spirit and can dilute it too much in a way that can’t be controlled. If you do find calvados to be too strong, we would instead recommend using a pipette to add a drop of water.
Indeed, a drop of water can actually help reduce alcohol bloom, which can conceal the aromas. Furthermore, adding a controlled portion of water may open up the spirit’s flavours.
What Is A Trou Normand?
As mentioned above, the “Trou Normand” (Norman Hole) is a traditional way of drinking calvados during a meal, which has been incorporated into Canadian regimental dinners.
A trou normand consists of a small drink of calvados that is served between courses of a large meal. Its purpose is said to aid digestion and revive the appetite. Occasionally, the trou normand is served with apple sorbet. However, it is increasingly common today to just serve the sorbet without the calvados.
Typically, the trou normand is served following a meat dish especially if another is to follow shortly afterwards.
A serving tradition that became particularly popular in 19th-century café culture, the “Café-Calva” is an iconic working-class drink. Interestingly, it’s not dissimilar to a caffè corretto pictured above, which is a way of drinking Italian grappa.
In some parts of France, the café-calva is referred to as either a cafaé coueffi (groomed coffee) or cafaé arousaé (watered coffee). A shot of young calvados is served alongside an espresso coffee. A small drop of calvados is added to the coffee as an alternative to sugar.
Every time a sip of coffee is taken, the cup is topped up with calvados. Eventually, the last drop of calvados is used to rinse the empty coffee cup, which is knocked back as a small shot.
Although the café-calva is a fading tradition today, it was so popular that customers would have to specify that they wanted a plain coffee (café nature) at a bar as late as the 1970s.
A “Canard”, which is French for “duck”, is the practice of dipping a sugar cube in a glass of calvados. Once the sugar has absorbed the alcohol, it is then simply eaten.
A canard isn’t exclusive to calvados. In fact, it’s a common practice for coffee, too. Although it is rarer today, a canard was often given to children so that they develop a taste for coffee or could benefit from an alcoholic beverage’s supposed medicinal properties.
After all, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down!
What Glasses To Use For Drinking Calvados
As calvados spent much of its history as essentially a peasant’s drink, less emphasis was placed on the choice of glassware. However, as it started to garner a reputation, drinking customs eventually became gentrified.
It is not uncommon for calvados to be enjoyed in a small, stemmed shot glass with a tulip shape. However, it is frequently savoured in a large balloon-shaped brandy snifter in the same way as cognac.
Meanwhile, serious enthusiasts and professionals have turned towards long-stemmed tulip glasses for tasting calvados. Although all three options are able to capture the aromatic compounds thanks to the concave design, long-stemmed tulip glasses are more precise and offer better control of the liquid’s temperature.
You can learn more about the best glasses to use with our full glassware guide.
Similar Drinks & Calvados Substitutes
As mentioned on multiple occasions above, cognac and Armagnac are probably the closest siblings to calvados. However, they’re made from wine rather than cider so their flavours tend to be more vinous.
Alternatively, we already highlighted England’s cider brandy heritage from Somerset, which probably has more in common with calvados than any other beverage.
Nevertheless, there are lots of varieties of fruit brandy all over the world. For instance, Germany and Alsace are well-known for producing Williams pear schnaps. Unlike calvados, it’s a clear eau-de-vie that isn’t aged but it does share some similarities.
Furthermore, you can also learn about either Pommeau de Normandie and Crème de Calvados in our guide to how calvados in made. Both are produced using calvados yet offer a vastly different experience.
Finally, consider also sampling Normandy’s famous cider. Although the cider made for producing calvados is almost undrinkable, Normandy’s cider can provide you with a unique insight into its rich culture.
What Are The Benefits Of Drinking Calvados?
Eau-de-vie was first developed after distillation arrived in France via the Umayyad conquest of Hispania. It was often administered both orally and topically with the belief that it was an effective medicinal remedy.
Indeed, small quantities of brandy may offer some minor health benefits depending on both the techniques and the raw materials used to produce it.
For instance, Armagnac is distilled just once with a continuous column still, which means that it has a greater quantity of antioxidants than cognac, which is distilled twice.
Beyond the belief that calvados aids in digestion, it is rarely consumed as a medicinal remedy today. However, it was often regarded as a tonic, which is why it was so coveted by the troops during the First World War.
Gluten, Carbs, & Calories In Calvados
Although calvados may receive a small dose of sugar or caramel before it is bottle, the amount used is strictly regulated. Therefore, a shot of calvados will be as lightweight as even unaged spirits like vodka and gin.
As a result, you can expect no more than 100 calories in a shot of calvados as well as no carbohydrates or any fat. Furthermore, it is made from apples or pears, which means that it is also gluten-free and safe to drink if you have celiac’s disease.
Now that you have read our introductory guide to calvados, let’s dig deeper and learn more!