Marcel Proust was a fan. So was the great New Yorker writer, the acidic A. J. Liebling. But those fellows are long gone and the tipple they enjoyed—Calvados—is still somewhat under-appreciated in the U.S. According to the most recent figures from IDAC (the French association of cider-based controlled appellations), the E.U. represents 40 percent of the export market, with just 4 percent of the product making its way to the U.S. The delectable Norman pour has made inroads over the years, especially with mixologists, but when it comes to taking a brandy straight, chances are you’re ordering Cognac or Armagnac (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Like many spirits, Calvados was initially a local affair, whipped up by French farmers to sip themselves. And for years, it was viewed by smart Parisians as a rustic’s delight, something only a workman would throw back before heading off to his labors. In fact, Normans often consume the beverage between courses at a meal, a tradition nicknamed “le trou normand,” to burn a hole through the belly.
Calvados begins as cider spun from a blend of tart pippin apples, such as Frequin Rouge and Antoinette, along with sweeter kin. Once fermented, it is distilled and aged in oak barrels. To warrant its AOC, the product must be made within Calvados, distilled once in a column still, and aged in oak for at least two years. Calvados made in the Pays d’Auge district, considered the best representation of the product, is distilled twice in a pot still and is often aged for twenty years or more.
The nose of a good Calvados is one of its chief delights, an orchard-conjuring sweetness tinged with a light muskiness. It hits the palate with a deep (though not cloying) fruitiness backed by an earthy core. The spirit affords the rich satisfaction of a grape-based brandy, but is a gentler, less forceful experience, a quaff that doesn’t insist you approach it with awe. “Calvados often needs someone behind the bar who knows and loves the spirit to get guests to try it,” notes Jody Richardson, manager at the legendary Chicago bistro, Mon Ami Gabi. “We have Christian Drouin Pays d’ Auge VSOP, which I think appeals to a broad selection of palates. It is really well balanced, with the smokey nuances of cognac, while still bringing the apple qualities.” Set me up, s’il vous plaît.