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Bitter Apples Make Fragrant Calvados

I once asked a single friend what type of man she preferred.  “Why do I have to choose just one?” she replied.  I’m that way with brandies, and I love it when someone introduces me to one I have not tried before. There are interesting ones from Spain and Mexico and Greece and America and just about any place where you have fruit and a still.

I have to believe, though, that the French have the “World’s Best Brandy Producer” title all locked up.  Is there anything better than sitting at a piano bar after a great dinner, listening to someone play Jobim while sipping a Cognac or an Armagnac along with a perfectly made double espresso? 

Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to visit the sources of both – the Charente for Cognac and Gascony for Armagnac – and to talk with master distilleries about their wizardry. France’s third great brandy region is Normandy where Calvados is produced.  Unlike the other two, the word Calvados does not end in one of the hundreds of “-acs” of Southwest France, and neither is it made from grapes.  Although I have consumed a few bottles of fine Calvados at piano bars and elsewhere, I have never had the opportunity to visit there.  But recently I was able to pose a few questions to Vincent Boulard, whose family owns Calvados Boulard, makers of some of the best apple brandies in the world.

Q.  Tart grapes are usually used to make Cognac and Armagnac.  What kind of apples do you grow for Calvados?

A.   The apples belong to four categories – bitters, sweets, bitter sweets, and tart. These are not eating apples - not so tasty. With Calvados Boulard, we use no less than 120 different varieties coming to a natural maturity from early October to late December.

Q: What is the production process?

A: The apples have to be washed in clear water before being grated.  The mash is oxidized for 30 minutes and gently pressed to obtain a juice 85% of the apple weight. Then we start a natural fermentation to transform the juice into cider. The alcohol potential is about 5.5% by volume. We do not add any yeast; they are 100% endogenous yeasts. After fermentation, then starts a double distillation in pot stills.
Q. How do you keep the fruit aromas and flavors alive during distillation? Intuitively, we might think these aromas would be lost during the heating and cooling, and that the Calvados would smell more neutral, like vodka.

A.  This is a very important question. Distillation of eaux de vie is the art of catching the aromas throughout the distillation process for Calvados but also for Cognac, Armagnac, whiskies. The big difference between Calvados and vodka is that all aromas for a distilled eaux de vie are between 60% alcohol volume and 72% alcohol volume. When distilling vodka you start from a fermented juice made of cereals, potatoes, and so on and distill pure alcohol (i.e. above 90% alcohol).  The result is you eliminate every aromatic component and keep pure alcohol.

Q. Have there been any basic changes in how you make Calvados since you first started working at the company?

A. We have been working hard, and are still working hard, to improve the process. We select the best varieties of apples and are constantly working to improve the distillation process.

Q.  Are there preferred ways for drinking Calvados?

A.  There are no specific secrets in how one should drink Calvados - always be open minded and try it in a variety of ways. Drink it neat, then add an ice cube, make some cocktails.

Q.  What kind of cocktails?

A.  At Calvados Boulard, we have experimented with three different emblematic cocktails recipes – the Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Mojito. In each instance, you can replace the whiskey or rum with Calvados Boulard.

As a Manhattan-up type of guy, I’ll have to have my bartender try that next time – as long as he doesn’t substitute an apple in my glass for the cherry.

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