Calvados Adds Fresh Apple Flavor to Cocktails

Amy Cavanaugh

Right at the intersection of the cider boom spreading across the U.S. and Americans’ growing interest in both domestic and European brandies is Calvados. The apple brandy is distilled from cider in Normandy, France, which makes it a natural fit for the menus at cider-focused spots like Wassail in New York City and The Northman in Chicago, as well as brandy bars like Trou Normand in San Francisco. But the spirit appeals to bartenders at all manner of bars, as it’s ideal mixed into cocktails, or served neat to settle the stomach during a meal, as it’s traditionally consumed in Normandy.

Ambrosia Borowski, assistant general manager/cocktail curator at The Northman, says that Calvados as a cocktail ingredient “gives a fruity and strong alcohol backbone. Similar to how cider adds acidic and fruity aspects with low ABV, Calvados adds the same with a higher ABV,” she says.

At The Northman, Borowski has compiled a menu with more than a dozen different bottles of Calvados that date back to 1970, as well as Calvados cocktails. Her Garden Martini, made with Claque-Pepin Fine Calvados, Orleans Herbal Ice Cider and Dolin Blanc, is stirred and garnished with apple and lemon basil ($10, recipe).

“The Garden Martini is for easing into fall,” she says. “Once it’s fall, I’ll use a Calvados with a higher wood quality to it and mix darker flavors, like an aged gin.”

The drink list also offers pairing suggestions with specific bottles of Calvados, such as Busnel VSOP with ginger ale and Chateau Du Breuil La Pommiere Selection with soda and an orange peel.

At Trou Normand, named after the French term for a small pour of Calvados served between courses to settle the stomach and prepare it for more food, Thad Vogler and his team source Calvados from Normandy each year, which they serve straight and in historic, classic cocktails, like the Corpse Reviver #1, with Armagnac, Calvados and vermouth rouge, and the Supreme.

“The Supreme comes from The Waldorf Astoria Bar Book, and it just calls for Calvados and orgeat, so there’s this almond and apple and citrus combination that’s great,” he says. The drink also includes lemon juice and a bar spoon of grenadine ($15, recipe).

At Wassail, Daniel Pucci, the cider director (or “pommelier”) serves Calvados in the Roustabout with Averna and rum, as well as part of the Stone Fence, with a shot of Calvados and Dupont Brut. For the Rambault, he uses Christian Drouin Calvados, but notes that any fruit-forward Calvados would work, and mixes it with honey syrup, lemon and green Chartreuse ($13, recipe).

“That cocktail highlights the fruitiness and freshness of the Calvados,” he says. “The Chartreuse adds an herbal element to the drink, and the honey plays well off that to give it savory, grassy flavors. The same cocktail is good with Bénédictine instead of Chartreuse, as it’s another great Norman liqueur that plays well in that regard, and it ends up being a little on the sweeter side with a deeper flavor.”

When choosing a Calvados to use in cocktails, the bartenders suggest selecting a younger style, which is both less expensive and shines through the other ingredients in the drink.

“A younger Calvados is aged a minimum of two years, and a lot are doing three,” Borowski says. “It’s staying true to the fruit, with a bright apple quality. As they age, they pick up characteristics from the wood, like light cinnamon and vanilla. My maximum is 15 years; after that you get a lot of wood tannins.”

Pucci says that there are “distinct styles, more fruity styles and earthier styles.”

“It has to do with apple selection and things like that,” he says. “Most Calvados on the market are around three to four years of age. As they get older, they get more oxidized, like more walnut and honey notes. For me personally, I like them around the 8- to 12-year age range, but past 12 years, they lose some freshness and personality.”

While Calvados isn’t the only apple brandy available, it’s different from American styles. “Many American brandies are aged in American oak barrels that contained bourbon or whiskey, while Calvados is generally aged in French oak barrels,” says Pucci. “Generally American whiskey-aged apple brandy is in newer barrels, so they have much more of that woody, vanilla, baking spice notes to them, while Calvados is oftentimes aged in very old barrels, so you get less of that flavor and more fruit and freshness.”

Pucci notes that Calvados is “made from cider varieties of apples, which have higher tannins, higher sugars, higher acidity, more tropical fruits.”

Borowski adds that Calvados has a longer fermentation process. “They’re fermenting for at least six weeks, which gives it a lot more of an apple quality when it goes into the barrel,” she says. “Also, they’re not as heavy on the wood. I appreciate that Americans are using fruit, but that fruit doesn’t shine through. With Calvados, while they’re aging it still, they’re focusing on the heart of the matter, which is the apple.”

Vogler, Pucci and Borowski each say that their preferred way to drink Calvados is straight, and Pucci says that whiskey drinkers and the U.S. market should be looking at aged Calvados.

“Right now everyone wants older brown spirits, but it takes a lot of time to make aged whiskies,” he says. “But with Calvados, the French have had this stuff lying around for decades. When the American market realizes there’s all these amazing old brown spirits that are delicious, we’re going to drink it all up.”

Amy Cavanaugh’s Calvados cocktail of choice is a Jack Rose.

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