Posted on | September 22, 2015
Written by | Jim Clarke
Buoyed by the cider and craft trends, France’s signature apple brandy is back in the spotlight.
When we talk about apples, we think of cider, and when we talk about France, we think of wine. But when we talk about France and apples together, we should be talking—with all due respect to the tarte tatin—about Calvados. And more and more, we are.
“Calvados is doing well in the USA,” says Vincent Boulard, PR Manager for Spirit France, which counts three Calvados brands in its portfolio including Boulard’s family company. “Boulard remains number one in value and volume, with national distribution.” More important: it’s growing. Boulard Calvados total exports to the U.S. were flat from the turn of the millennium through 2008, but have grown 70% since then. Projections for 2015 put total sales at double what they were in 2000.
This has encouraged Spirit France to import and broaden distribution of all three of their Calvados brands: Boulard, LeCompte and Père Magliore. “This position is quite historical. It makes sense for Spirit France to enlarge its portfolio and propose all three brands,” says Boulard.
A product of Normandy, Calvados first found a home in the U.S. after World War II, when veterans returned home with a taste for it; in fact, Boulard last year marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day with “Cuvée Ike,” a collectors’ edition Calvados named for General Eisenhower. Ditto Groult; they released 1,944 bottles of a D-Day limited edition.
Today’s growth is more about being at the confluence of two trends. “There’s no doubt that the cider trend in the U.S.A. looks very positive and can sustain and reinforce the consumer taste for Calvados” says Boulard. And the interest in craft and artisanal spirits is also feeding interest in Calvados.
“Calvados is mostly small houses that are considered as craft producers and quite rightly so,” says Jerome Dupont, fourth-generation Director at Dupont Calvados. In 2008, Dupont, along with Roger Groult, Christian Drouin, Pierre Huet and Père Jules, banded together to raise awareness of the category. “We wanted to show that there is a young generation interested in Calvados production and pursuing the tradition while bringing some fresh and open ideas at the same time. Also, that there is a diversity in Calvados. This is to push people to explore the different Calvados like they explore different rums.”
While apple brandies are produced in the U.S.—most notably Laird’s Applejack, made in New Jersey—and elsewhere in the world, Calvados enjoys an appellation system and name recognition that helps it stand apart, just as Cognac and Armagnac remain distinct in consumers’ minds from other grape brandies.
There are three appellations: Calvados, Calvados Pays d’Auge, and Calvados Domfrontais. The latter two are distinguished from the broader appellation by both production methods and raw materials.
“With its double distillation, Pays d’Auge Calvados tends to be a rounder and a milder Calvados, rich and long,” says Guillaume Drouin of Drouin Calvados. “It can stand a very long aging and will evolve toward a very subtle, deep, and complex Calvados. Domfrontais Calvados benefits from the use of pears [up to 30%] and its single distillation. It comes out with a very fruity and expressive nose. More straight forward, more acidic, vibrant and lively even when very old.”
Age, Labels & Such
It’s not often one gets to speak about a French appellation and say that the label terminology does not matter all that much, but with Calvados, it’s quite possible to apply this thinking. Many of the terms on the label will also be familiar: VS, VSOP, XO, and so forth. “For Calvados you have that,” says Flavien Desoblin, owner of the Brandy Library in New York, “but not everybody uses it; they’re kind of in-between Cognac and Armagnac.”
Vintage Calvados is allowed, like Armagnac but unlike Cognac. Some producers use other terms as well such as Hors d’Age, or Napoleon. Some, such as LeCompte, even label their products by minimum years aged—12 ans [years], 18 ans—like Scotch. Given the diversity, Desoblin says knowing an individual producer’s style is often more important than knowing these terms.
But that’s not the biggest challenge facing Calvados, according to Desoblin. “The category needs a big name that will be recognized. With Cognac there are big brands with a lot more money to spend on differentiation. That’s all it would take; that would get it up and running. It’s the money that’s missing.”
Calling Chefs & Mixologists
On the other hand, without that luxury marketing budget, Calvados also doesn’t suffer from exaggerated pricing, which opens it up to all sorts of uses. “The culinary side is huge,” says Marlana Persson, Marketing Coordinator for Niche Import Co., which brings in Domaine Coquerel, the region’s third-largest producer. “We’re really going after that.”
Calvados is traditionally used in sauces and gravies but also in desserts. Niche Import sells the Coquerel Fine in 750 and 375ml bottles to make it convenient for both restaurants and home chefs; the half-bottle format in particular was up 33% last year.
And while brand name Cognacs are often prohibitively expensive for many cocktail programs, bartenders can easily find a quality Calvados to work with. “In the past Calvados was more intended as a digestif,” says Dupont; “in recent years there’s definitely been a big interest in cocktails. Young Calvados is full of fruit flavor, making it a good ingredient for cocktails.”
The Intercontinental New York Barclay Hotel (currently under renovations) has amassed a collection of over 300 Calvados; bartender Jose Torrella Jr. has created a multitude of cocktails using it. He particularly likes combining the apple flavor with herbal or spice notes; his “Hot Desire” combines jalapeño-infused Calvados with watermelon, and “The Leading Lady” with rosemary.
He prefers to work with VSOP, which is aged a minimum of four years. “I find the VSOP’s well-balanced, not too strong, and holds up well with sugars; in the drink you can still taste the Calvados behind it. It’s a little more expensive, but much more complex.”
By retaining its apple flavor, Calvados is immediately distinct from grape brandies, which rarely taste of the fruit. Apple being a flavor familiar to everyone from childhood certainly works in its favor, too; while awareness of Calvados might not be widespread, there’s no reason people won’t understand it when they taste it. As Persson says, “We have about 130 liquors in our portfolio; Calvados is in the top ten, maybe five. It sells itself without a lot of marketing push.”
A Short List
While Calvados labeling can be a free-for-all, the brandies’ style and complexity generally correspond well to their aging, and with that, their price points. In other words, higher tags deliver higher quality.
Here are some recommendations ranging from the entry-level examples well-priced for cocktails to some of the most elegant bottlings of the brandy world.
£ Entry Level ($18-$45 SRP)
• Domaine du Coquerel Fine
• Dupont Fine Reserve
• Busnel VSOP
• Domaine du Montreuil Reserve
£ Richer Bottlings ($45-$80)
• Christian Drouin VSOP
• LeCompte 12ans
• Père Magliore XO
• Chateau du Breuil VSOP
• Roger Groult 12ans
£ Complex/Rarities ($80+)
• Michel Huard Vintage
• Boulard XO
• Roger Groult Age d’Or
• Dupont Vintage