The evolution of apple cider

By Mike Rosenberg

Photo: Calvados Pays d’Auge V.S.O.P.

I got a Twitter follow the other day from @ilovecalvados – which immediately made me first think, “Cool, another follower” followed quickly by “What in tarnation is Calvados?” A quick blast of my ten-finger Google-Fu technique yielded an alcohol-related answer, so I returned the follow and asked @ilovecalvados if they could share some wisdom about it. (My handle is the ultra-creative @thenakedvine, so please feel free to follow…)

As it turns out, that particular account is actually managed by my friends Maggie and Lia at Colangelo, who were nice enough to step outside the world of wine with me for a minute and shoot me a sample of the stuff to try.

So, after all this, what is Calvados? Calvados (pronounced KAL-vuh-dose) is a distilled spirit. Instead of coming from the fields like scotch and bourbon (made from grains) or from the vine like Cognac and Armagnac (made from wine) Calvados comes from the trees; specifically, apple and pear trees.

The name “Calvados” comes from the area of Normandy in northern France where this spirit is produced. In the late 1800’s, when the phylloxera outbreak was wiping out most of the vineyards in Europe, the French turned to Calvados for an alcoholic alternative. Much of the distilling equipment was requisitioned for use in World War II. When the distilleries and cider houses were rebuilt, many of them were in the Pays d’Auge area of Calvados – which has become the best known area for the spirit.

Calvados is produced from certain varieties of apples, which are first pressed and fermented into a dry hard cider. The resulting hard cider (about 5-6 percent alcohol) is distilled into a brandy. There are around 300 different varieties of apples which can be used in Calvados – some of which are so bitter as to be inedible, so making them into booze seems like a logical use! Much like a blend wine draws its flavor and characteristics from the array of grape varietals, the blend of apple varieties and amounts in each Calvados creates a different flavor profile. Some regions add pears to the blend, but apples always comprise at least 70 percent of the blend.

[Side note: the term “brandy” comes from the Dutch “brandewijn” which translates as burnt wine, for reasons which will become clear in a moment.]

If you’re not familiar with the distilling process, the short version is this: the cider is put into a tank and heated. Water, as you know from science class, boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Ethyl alcohol – the stuff we drink – boils at a lower temperature, 172 degrees. The cider is heated to a particular point between those two temperatures.

When the cider reaches the appropriate temperature, the alcohol will begin to vaporize and will rise from the liquid. Those vapors are collected and cooled in a condenser, and – voila! – you’ve got a distilled liquid of around 28-30 percent alcohol known as petit eau (“little water”). This petit eau also contains some water and other trace elements, so distillers will run that liquid back through the distiller a second (or third or sixth) time to both increase the alcohol content and purity, creating the high-alcohol beverage known as eau de vie, which literally translates as “water of life.” This spirit can be as high in alcohol as 70 percent at this stage in the process.

The resulting brandy is then placed in well-seasoned oak casks and cut with water to the desired alcohol content, usually around 40 percent. The time in barrel allows the spirit to pick up colors and flavors from the wood. Most Calvados is aged in lightly toasted casks, so as not to impart too many smoke flavors or colors to the finished product. After a period of aging, the Calvados is bottled.

The length of the aging is the main determinant of the quality classification. “Fine” Calvados are aged for at least two years; “Vieux” or “Reserve” at least three; “VO” or “VSOP” at least four; and “XO” at least six years – but are commonly much older. Calvados can be made of spirits of varying years, but the youngest component of the blend determines the classification.

I was sent a sample of the Calvados Boulard VSOP Pays d’Auge to sample. I’ve had applejack and domestic apple brandies before, so that’s what I had in mind – spirits that tasted strongly of apples, with a fair amount of residual sweetness. My first sip quickly disabused me of the notion that Calvados is anything like my previous libationary experiences.

Calvados needs to be approached more like the brandy that it is – in a sipwise fashion. The aroma, which also had a bit of alcohol heat, reminded me of cinnamon covered dried apples. For an 80-proof liquor, it’s very smooth. I barely noticed a burn at all as it warmed from my throat to my belly with a light, slightly fruity feeling. The next exhale brought a breath of apples and vanilla. I thought it was very tasty, and it seems ideal for a cool (or cold!) evening.

It also really shines as a mixer. In reading about Calvados, I read that it can basically be substituted for any sort of brown liquor in a cocktail. I would imagine it would be smashing in a hot toddy, with Calvados’ built-in apple flavors, but where I enjoyed it most was in a Calvados Old Fashioned. To make one:

In a mixing glass, mix together 1 tbsp. honey with 1 tbsp. hot water, so the honey becomes a thin syrup. Add ice, 2 oz. Calvados, and 4 dashes of bitters. Stir until well-mixed. Strain into a martini glass and give it twists of lemon and orange peel. Garnish with a slice of sweet apple. Sip and thank me.

Calvados is a nice winter alternative to some standard winter beverage, especially if you enjoy whiskey cocktails. And if you’re a cider drinker – it’s worth trying just to see what happens when your favorite beverage gets distilled.

The Calvados Boulard VSOP Pays d’Auge I tried retails for $40 for a fifth. Definitely worth a try.

Reach DCP freelance writer Mike Rosenberg at or visit his blog at

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Reach DCP freelance writer Mike Rosenberg at or visit his blog at

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