Coming Events



Calvados: An Excellent Eau de Vie.

December 09, 2013
Calvados: An Excellent Eau de Vie.


The Calvados house “Coeur de Lion” is called Calvados Christian Drouin these days. Although Calvados can mix with a myriad of liqueurs, bitters, wines, juices and Champagne a particular Camembert company didn’t want to get mixed up with it!

Here not far from the town of Coudray Rabut lies the grounds and equipment of this fine Pays d’Auge distillery dating back, in Calvados terms, to a recent 1961 when Christian bought it.
Guillaume, Christian’s son, explained to Bartenders from the Sherry Butt, Dirty Dick, Candeleria, Red House and Little Red door, all independent bars in Paris which are well worth the visit, the intricacies of Calvados production.

There are 8 departments involved in the making of Calvados. Seine Maritime, L’Eure, Mayenne, Manche, Calvados, Sarthe, l’Orne and l’Oise. As there are 95 departments in France, not counting those across the seas, that would be 10% of France. The region in the North West of France begins just half an hour’s drive from my home but would take me 1h30 to the other side driving North to South, as it were. From West to East, from Neufchatel to Lisieux, passing then through Domfront and North to Saint Lo and finally Cherbourg, that would probably take over 5 hours. They say that there are more than 7 million trees dedicated to Cider, Pommeau and Calvados production. I’m not going to verify!

Although apple production goes back to Adam and Eve (the word apple in Greek is ‘Malus’), the first apple culture came to France in the 6th century through the Burgondes, a German tribe that invaded the Rhône valley and forced the Francs to grow apples. In 780 Charlemagne introduced methodical planting pushing towards lines of trees rather than circles.
During the reign of Henri II a certain Gilles de Gouberville in 1553 writes in his dairy about an encounter with “Master Francois” hailing from Tours in the Indre et Loire Department. He indeed mentions distillation but fails to confirm that he is distilling apples in spite of the fact that ‘Sire de Gouberville” is an acclaimed ‘pepiniste’.(Most of the sites that you visit will confirm the contrary, but they possibly do not have a copy of Gilles de Goubervilles’ Diary in front of them as I have right now!) Passioned by apples, Gilles de Gouberville will confirm the influence of Spain and the Bay of Biscaye route for many apples used at the time.
There are three regions with three ‘Appellations Controlee with three soil differences.

The Appellations are :
Calvados Pays d’Auge=1942. Departments: Calvados, Orne and Eure. Soil clay limestone
Calvados = 1984. Departments: Eure, Seine Maritime, Mayenne, Sarthe and Oise. Wet silt and clay would constitute the majority of the soil. Retaining the water but with a higher acidity then the Pays d’Auge.
Domfrontais 1997. Around Domfront, the soil is Schist and Granite which is perfect for pear trees.
There are two sorts of trees, 4 sorts of apple varieties and 3 sub categories. Oh! And 700 apple types of which 177 are well recognized and 42 are recommended. And they say that Calvados is simple!

The trees are either “Traditional’, ‘High branch’ tall and large. They offer their first apples 10 years after planting, offer full production at 40 years and continue to offer fruit for another 30 years after that. They allow 150 trees per hectare, planted 8 meters apart, offering in total 20 tons of apples or 30 tons of pears.

Of course that might seem like a long time to wait for certain companies which took the second option of the smaller ‘low branch’ trees in the 1990’s. These trees can be planted 2 to 3 meters apart with corridors of 5 meters with between 450 and 600 trees per hectare offering 40 tons of apples, of course there are pears as well... The low branch offers its first fruit 5 years after planting and is in full production after 8 years, but they die after 40 years. Although these trees need to be sprayed with insecticide and treated regularly in general, quite a few growers went full scale towards this more industrial version in the 1990’s.
The trend seems to be balancing itself out today. To know whether you are in front of a ‘high branch’ tree or a ‘low branch’ tree you must measure the height of the branch which would seem obvious. Above 1m80 (6ft) you are with a ‘high branch’ tree.
The apples are small and sour, most definitely not for eating. The Granny Smiths and Golden Delicious ‘might’ find themselves in Applejack in New Jersey, you will not find them in Calvados.

70% of the apples must be Bitter or Bitter Sweet with, since 1997, no more than 10% being Acidic, leaving a little scope for any other apples or pears in the Calvados and Pays d’Auge regions. However in the Domfrontais region where the pear is king a minimum of 30% pears is required and the tendency is to go much higher. Some of the Calvados Domfrontais can have 80% pears!

Bitter apples: Domaine, Moulin a vent.
Bittersweet: Bedan, St Martin, Binet rouge.
Sweet: Rambault, Renee Martin.
Acidic: Petit Jaune

Once you have registered that there are Bittersweet, Bitter, Sweet and Acidic varieties then you can move into the sub categories.
Apples of the first season from September can be used or left to be eaten by the cows. Cow’s love apples! Whilst they eat the apples they are also mowing the grass in their own way making a good cushion for the future apples. One must admit that the first apples to fall may not be of perfect quality and also that it might be seasonally too warm for a controlled fermentation. Guillaume tells me that they hope to construct a building where they can control the heat in the future.

The second season starts in October going through to November and the third season December and January. One lovely name of these last apples to fall is “Noel des Champs”.
All these apples are chosen for their high phenolic compounds and their ability to produce 78g sugar per liter once they have been crushed. To be crushed they will be put into wooden baskets just below the crushing machine that you will see in the pictures. The juice is then transferred to the fermentation.

The fermentation of the apple juice transforming into cider will take a minimum of 4 weeks in Calvados to a minimum of 6 weeks in the Pays d’Auge and Domfrontais area. The reality being that these regions will probably ferment the apple juices longer. It’s the juice and the natural yeast that will decide at the end of the day. But one must not forget about the role of the skins themselves, responsible for the pectin and the flavor of the cider. Pectin equals calcium too.
Let’s say two months after the apples have been crushed and the beginning of the fermentation has begun, but it could very well be later, a decision is taken whether or not to distill. By this time the cider has 500mg/l of volatile acids, 100mg of esters and should not have more than 200mg of methanol per liter. The acids will protect the cider from bacteria; the esters will give us the rainbow of taste. The methanol although close to ethanol is not, and is not good for the body taking 7 times longer to be transformed by the liver, so we want to keep that down to a minimum. The cider now is between 4.5° and 6°abv at a temperature of 20C.
Indeed a certain quantity of cider might be left to age which could offer a more stratified Calvados after distillation. Some distillers like distilling aged cider, some fresh cider and some a mix of both.

We now have arrived at the distillation sequence. In the “Pays d’Auge” region they must use the Pot still method which distills a large amount of cider into a small amount of brouillis, an alcohol of between +/- 24° and 32°abv. This brouillis will be re distilled or refined if you will into an even smaller amount of alcohol of 70° to 58° again this is round about. This amount of alcohol taken is called ‘the cut’. Alcohol of over the 70° to perhaps 72° or more, the ‘heads’, around 2 to 4 liters will be redirected to the cider or the brouillis, same thing with the alcohol after “the cut between 58° to around 2°, this is called the ‘seconds’ and will be added to the brouillis. The portion of 2° to 0°, the ‘tails ‘may be added to the cider or the brouillis or...not.
The most important part, the heart of the distillation"la bonne chauffe" is 70°. All this has to be done before the distillation campaign comes to an end on the 30 June even though most of the distillation will take part well before or, on the other hand, we could wait until the colder months arrive later in the year with a more aged cider.

Then again you can have the two stills in mobile form, one next to the other which is really half of one style of distillation and half of the other.

However in the Appellation “Calvados” region they can use either the pot still or the continuous / patent still methods. This method was actually created in France by Edouard Adam in 1818 and has only slightly been changed since. The somewhat “colder” cider meets the hot vapors and cools them down somewhat before rectification creating an interesting exchange between the fruit and the alcohol.

To the last and newest Appellation “Domfrontais”, here it has to be the continuous distillation system but the alcohol, unlike the Armagnac which will distill from 52° to 60°, the Domfrontais cider will be distilled to 72°. This method is however restrained by a rule. The maximum debit per 24 hours can only be 250hl.

Now we have lots of alcohol at 63° more or less. . We are not going to put it into new barrels but rather older ones. Gillaume will wait a few years to see how the alcohol will evolve without an overpowering role of young wood. Hydrolysis, a very slow process, a sort of balance between esters, water, alcohol and acids will continue to drive the alcohol to a state close to its eventual perfection. When the time is right, he then may for a certain time, put the eau de vie that has naturally lost a few degrees over the years to the sky above Coudray Rabut into younger barrels to develop through exchange with the wood the other characteristics emerging from the tannins in the wood and the lignin which will give a slight vanilla flavor. Glycerol will develop with polysaccharides which are basically viscosity and sugar along with fatty acids and the breaking down there of liberating bouquets coming from aldehydes.
Approaching the desired age Guillaume Drouin will choose whether to bottle at strength which is rare or bring the percentage of alcohol down to the desired degree, probably 40°abv. In order to do this without upsetting the years of ageing, Calvados and distilled water in the desired proportions will bring the Calvados down between 6 months and a year.
As mentioned above, the distillery campaign is from 1st July to the 30th April. Up to the 30th June anything that has been distilled in the +/- 12 months before has the code 00. On the 1st July these 00 products become 0 and on the 1st of the following July they become Compte 1. Calvados must be Compte 2 to be bottled. Meaning a minimum of 2 years and a few months probably.

But just as aged Cognac and Armagnac are horrible with Tonic, I wish that they would learn, Calvados is too. The solution as one has to believe that they all want to drink tonic with their eau de vie is to create a non-aged alcohol. In 2006 Armagnac brought out a “White Armagnac” which is not only delicious with tonic (Tch!) it is also great in cocktails, but then again so is aged Armagnac.

Guillaume Drouin and Christian Drouin have brought out a “White Normandy” alcohol called “Blanche de Normandie”. This does not have an appellation Controlee yet but it doesn’t stop the alcohol being marvelous on the palate.

Calvados: An Excellent Eau de Vie.Calvados: An Excellent Eau de Vie.Calvados: An Excellent Eau de Vie.Calvados: An Excellent Eau de Vie.Calvados: An Excellent Eau de Vie.Calvados: An Excellent Eau de Vie.Calvados: An Excellent Eau de Vie.Calvados: An Excellent Eau de Vie.Calvados: An Excellent Eau de Vie.Calvados: An Excellent Eau de Vie.