November 11, 2005 -- Business Week -- Eating and Drinking


Comfort Me with Apple Brandy

Calvados, produced in Normandy, can be rich with the aroma of the fruit or as smooth as a well-aged cognac -- and great for wintry weekends

There's a nip in the air most mornings these days. And at dusk, the chill returns. Sweaters emerge from summer storage. Woodpiles are stoked in preparation for winter fires. And if you're beefing up your liquor cabinet for those snowy weekends, don't forget the Calvados.

Calvados, the apple brandy produced in the northwest corner of France in the coastal area of Normandy -- not far from where the Western Allies invaded occupied France 61 years ago -- lies a little outside the mainstream of American palates.


Cognac, the brandy produced in central France, is far more popular and a bigger seller worldwide. But I chalk that up primarily to the cachet of grapes -- relative to apples -- among distillers and winemakers. After all, Normandy remains the one region of France where grapes are hardly grown. The area devotes itself to dairy production, feed crops, and, thankfully, apples.

As so with cognac, opinions differ greatly about the best age for Calvados. Generally, the French -- both the orchard owners and apple pickers -- believe that older makes it better. That thinking is reflected in the prices. Calvados Boulard 1979, from Palm Bay Importers, costs $110, while its baby brother, Calvados Grand Solage, a blend of two- and four-year-old brandies, is an affordable $33.

At the risk of sounding like an unsophisticated American who prefers Miller High Life to a good imported stout, the younger Calvados has scent and taste notes that should not be dismissed or relegated to the saucepan. (Bottles of young Calvados in France commonly come labeled "for cooking," rather than for the snifter.)


Calvados is distilled from cider made from many varieties of apples nobly rotted in bins and right in the orchard grass. The selection of mealy, rotted apples and the subsequent careful blending gives a young Calvados a bolder aroma of the fruit. Tasting Boulard's Grand Solage or the Domaine Dupont Fine Reserve, created from a similar blend of young brandies, I get the essence of the aromas much like I do when passing a cider house where apple pulp is piling up in a corner.

That orchard scent and taste are much harder to locate in a 20-year-old Calvados stored in Sherry oak barrels, where it has absorbed much of the oak tannin. Some very old Calvados takes on a character and aroma of a well-aged cognac. And that's when Calvados becomes less interesting to me.

Of course, many high-end Calvados are seriously worth drinking. Michel Huard 1976 from Robert Chadderrdon Selections, $100, does a good job of retaining a bit more apple flavor than some other well-aged Calvados.


Although only apple brandy that comes from the Calvados area and wins certification from local authorities can carry the Calvados name, other apple brandies are worth trying. New Jersey-based Laird & Co. ranks as the oldest distiller in the U.S., having sold its apple brandy to George Washington.

Laird served as a big influence on Washington's own distilling of apples into brandy. The company sells several products, from common $17 Applejack, made from apples picked at their peak, to a 12-year-old Rare Old Apple Brandy, priced at $65. Considering the U.S. talent and history for making bourbon, it's not surprising that Laird ages its brandy in charred oak barrels as many whiskey makers do (see BW Online, 9/26/05, "Scotch Whisky for the Rest of Us").

The charred oak barrels give the distillation a depth and smokiness hard to find among the French brandies, which come out of aging with a more floral character.


A farming region, Normandy has fields full of prized lines of dairy cows. The cheese, milk, and butter from here are the best in the country. People associate Calvados brandy with the working classes here, and it's not uncommon for farmers to start their day with a jolt of their own brandy. Many citizens tend their own apple trees for the production of cider and Calvados

To compare, I tasted all of the bottles against some homemade stuff produced by a French cabinetmaker from his 30 trees. Technically Normandy moonshine, it seemed raw and a bit fiery despite a few years of aging in oak. The scent contained the rotting-apples essence that I consider the strength of Calvados, and I also caught a whiff of something that smelled faintly of nail-polish remover -- a sign of volatility. It's anyone's guess if further oaking or a transfer to different barrels would help.

Marlene Dietrich once said Calvados and chocolate make an excellent soldier's breakfast. I agree. I'm less enthusiastic about cocktails made with the stuff. One I came across, though, has some merit. Called the Brainduster, it combines one-half Calvados, one-half Cointreau, and a few shakes of Angostura bitters, with either no ice or just one or two cubes.


Still, a snifter makes the best home for Calvados. When I reach for a bottle, I feel as though I'm making a little visit to a special place in the world. It's in this part of Normandy, after all, that the end of World War II began. My father worked as a reporter for the Stars and Stripes army newspaper and set up the first continental edition of the paper after arriving on the beaches on D Day+3.

He used to tell me stories of the townspeople breaking out their hidden stashes of aging Calvados to share with liberating GIs. The Germans, it seems, had been more interested in the cognac. Eventually, my father made it to Cognac, too, and to the Champagne region where the sparkling wine flowed freely after V-E Day in 1945.

But the journey to victory began on the shores of Normandy with Calvados.

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