Calvados. The spirit of an apple.

Autumn is everywhere: days became shorter; air is filled with a smell of fallen leaves; and cold rains remind about warming fireplace. Again I return to the apples in our glasses. If sunny August days were perfect for light sparkling cider, then now is time for supplies of sun and warmth, time for Calvados.

Technologically calvados is an apple brandy (you can read an introduction article into the spirit idea and technology here). The base for calvados production is cider (read about Cider here), so it is not surprising that Normandy, the apple orchard of France and the oldest cider making region, is the place of origin for calvados as well.

Normandy is famous for its apple and pear orchards with their huge amount of fruit varieties that have been cultivated for many centuries, so producers have choices for their calvados base.

First documented calvados production (from “lord” de Gouberville) takes place back in 1533, although the first calvados, with high probability, has been made much earlier. Fifty years later the guild of calvados producers was founded. The production developed and expanded, and in 1789 (after French Revolution) the administrate territory that included Normandy, Brittany and Main regions (main apple brandy producers) was officially named Calvados. By that time drink itself had already the same name, although its origin is not clear (there are many different versions, but all of them are not quite realistic). Calvados popularity has been growing. Phylloxera helped to increase calvados world popularity by destroying French vineyards in the XIX century (also hurting Cognac, Armagnac and other grape brandies). In 1942, AOC status was granted to ten calvados-producing regions (my article about EU wine law can be found here, about French wine law here). AOC regulates territory, fruit varieties, and parameters of fermentation, distillation and maturation. In 1984, these AOCs were combined in single Calvados AC. Two small regions inside Calvados, with some production peculiarities, were granted with their own ACs.

Currently there are four designations of apple brandy:

a basic eau-de-vie de cidre/poire produced anywhere in Normandy/Brittaney/Main regions mainly by small producers
AOC Calvados – main region, 70% of all calvados production
AOC Calvados Domfrontais, a feature of this AOC is a large number of pears in the blend (at least 30%)
AOC Calvados du Pays d’Auge – the heart of calvados production, it makes the premium calvadoses of highest standards.

The peculiarities of each AOC are described as the text progresses.

Now about production.

Apples and Pears

Many people don’t think about pears as the base for calvados, although they are almost as important as apples. AOC Calvados Domfrontais requires at least 30% of pears.

Apples and pears used for calvados are mainly cider varieties. They are not suitable for raw consumption as food.

AOC Calvados allows the use of 177 varieties.  AOC Calvados du Pays d’Auge permits 87 apple varieties and 29 pear varieties.

They divide into four categories:
-sour (acid stabilizes the fermentation and gives freshness to a blend)
-bitter (brings tannins and fixes aromas)
-bitter-sweet (provides sugar and tannins)
-sweet (sugar for alcohol)

Usually all four types are used together.

Typical calvados blend includes 10% sour, 20% bitter, 50% bitter-sweet, and 20% sweet apples. Producer chooses exact varieties depending on a proposed aroma. Pretty often one blend can include up to hundred varieties.


I describe cider technology in details here. Cider for Calvados is made by the same way. To preserve gentle aroma, there is a requirement as of long fermentation at low temperature. The lower temperature (and, accordingly, longer fermentation) provides more gentle and volatile aromas, which simply disappear at higher temperature. AOC Calvados requires four weeks of fermentation. AOC Calvados du Pays d’Aug requires six weeks, but more often uses eight. Result is a dry cider of about 6% abv.


Calvados du Pays d’Aug is distilled twice in a pot still. The product of the first distillation is about 30% abv. Some producers age it before the second distillation. Product of the second distillation is about 65-70% abv.

AOC Calvados and AOC Calvados Domfrontais use single-column still. Final alcohol content is the same as in Calvados du Pays d’Aug, but it is lighter in the character.

The next step is dilution to 40% abv. This is multiple stages and a very slow process. If you dilute Calvados (or any brandy) to 40% in one scoop, the product’s taste would be ruined. It would be soapy and unpleasant. So, dilution is a leisure process.


As any French brandy, calvados is obliged to pass two stages of maturation: a short (6-12 months) one in new oak for extraction of oak substances and construction of the structure, followed by a long one in used oak for slow oxidation and taste formation and stabilization.

Most calvadoses are blends of different age products. Age mentioned on the label corresponds to the youngest component of the blend.

Grades of quality:

***/Fine  – minimum 2 years of maturation (3 for AOC Calvados Domfrontais)

Vieux/Reserve – minimum 3 years

VO/VSOP/Vielle Reserve – minimum 4 years

XO/Extra/Napoleon/Hors d’age/Age Inconnu – minimum 6 years

Most producers will exceed these limitations.

If a year turns out to be especially good, the vintage calvados can be made. In this case the year would be mentioned on the label.

Calvados taste and aromas strongly depend on the age. Relatively young calvadoses have bright and refreshing apple aroma, which gets reduced with ageing. The color becomes more saturated; the taste of dry apples and apricots appears with notes of vanilla, nuts, and chocolates. Very old calvadoses have a taste pretty similar to old brandy.

Calvados is perfect as it is. Cognac glasses are quite suitable for serving.

Traditionally Calvados is used as le trou Normand (the Norman hole). Small portions of  calvados are consumed between courses during a long dinner. It is supposed to awake the appetite and give proper respect to hours-long diner consisting of multiple courses. Sort of substitution to Roman feathers. It is not as helpful for staying in good shape as feathers are, but it’s definitely more pleasant.

Calvados goes great as aperitif, digestive, or with coffee.

It is also used for cocktails.
The cocktails with calvados, which can be found on my site:
Fallen Leaves
Apple Blossom №1
Apple Blossom №2

As a matter of fact, calvados is a regimental drink of three Canadian Regiments. Canadians brought calvados back home during invasion of Normandy and made it their official drink. Nowadays they must drink it at the call of duty.

While writing this article, I have been inspirited with Berneroy VSOP Calvados from the south of Normandy.

It’s a very aromatic drink with a bright flavor of fresh apples, floral notes and vanilla traces. Little sniff is enough to get rid of any doubt about nature of the drink. The taste brings spice and caramel notes. The drink is well balanced with nice long aftertaste. Very enjoyable.

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