Calvados is a rare and expensive apple brandy made in Calvados, in the Normandy region of northern France. It is considered one of the world's finest brandies, after only cognac and armagnac, and is distilled from apple cider and then aged in oak for at least one year, often longer. The highest quality calvados bears the designation applellation contrôlée. Applejack is an inferior American version of this luscious apple brandy.

The story goes that Charlemagne decreed that Normandy farmers had to grow apple orchards as well as grape vineyards. By the sixteenth century brandy was coming into vogue, and the enterprising local farmers, long plagued by a surplus of apples, began to distill their cider. Thus calvados was born. Apparently many modern French people in the Normandy region start their day off with a shot of young calvados to get their blood flowing; in the rest of the world, calvados is often used in cooking, added to chicken, pork, and veal dishes.

Calvados is a brandy produced from apples (or sometimes a mix of apples and pears) in and around the Calvados region of Normandy, where it has been made since before the eighteenth century. Alongside Cognac and Armagnac, it is one of the three regionally named French brandies.

A typical Calvados is much smoother than grape-based brandy, leading to it being described as semi-sweet. It is not, however, overly sugary or sickly, with much of the apparent sweetness coming from the lack of throat burning produced by most other strong spirits. Calvados derives much of its character from the fruit, and does not have the smokiness that is often associated with Armagnac.

Calvados is sold as an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (often shortened to AOC). Unlike Chablis and Champagne, Calvados has not yet achieved sufficient fame amongst the general public to have had its name misappropriated for a generic American knock-off, so checking for the presence of the Appellation label on the bottle is not particularly necessary; nonetheless, it can be helpful in determining flavour. At present, the three Calvados appellations are:

Calvados

The most general label, covering all of Calvados, Orne and Manche, and parts of Mayenne, Eure, Eure-et-Loire, Oise, Sarthe and Seine-Maritime. May be produced using single column distillation or double distillation, the former being more common.

Calvados Pays d'Auge

The traditional heart of Calvados production, and home to many of the finest varieties (although not all Pays d'Auge is good, and not all good Calvados is Pays d'Auge). Covers parts of Calvados, Orne and Eure. Only double distillation is allowed, and the production process is more tightly controlled.

Calvados-Domfrontais

Domfrontais must be made from at least 30% pears, giving it a fruitier flavour. It is not actually produced in Calvados, being limited to parts of Orne, Manche and Mayenne.

No matter what the appellation, Calvados must contain no less than 40% alcohol, and must be aged in oak barrels for at least two years (three for Domfrontais).

The varieties of apple and pear permitted are restricted, with most of the options being traditional for the region and selected for their relatively small size and distinct flavour. Almost all Calvados is made from a mixture of these varieties — unlike with some other spirits, unblended Calvados does not give a particularly good flavour.

Calvados may or may not be marked with a year or an age (no self respecting Calvados producer would deign to use English on their label, so an age will be shown as, for example "dix ans" for ten years). This is the age of the youngest part of the mix, not the age of the drink as a whole — as with some Armagnac, often a smaller amount of very old Calvados is mixed with younger varieties to produce a more characteristic flavour. The brandy V.S.O.P / X.O markings are rarely used, since nearly all Calvados is sold at well over the X.O. threshold.

Most Calvados is sold in 70cl bottles, although 50cl and the occasional arbitrary other size are also seen. This can make comparing prices slightly trickier for the unwary. The shape of the bottle varies, with some producers preferring a slightly undersized red wine style and others going for a thick cylindrical base with a long, thin and lightly tapered neck. This is mainly due to the small-scale farm produced nature of most Calvados, which does not encourage mass production of special purpose bottles.

Calvados should be served in a snifter, or failing that a wide, flat bottomed glass. It is best drunk at somewhere between room temperature and body temperature, although some prefer it served on the rocks (probably because the melting ice will dilute it somewhat). In Normandy it is sometimes drunk at the start of the day to wake up the drinker, and is also served between courses with large meals to improve the appetite.

Calvados can be used when cooking to create a flambé, although care should be taken here — Calvados is much easier to ignite and produces taller flames than cheap brandy.

References:
    • The Institut National des Appellations d'Origine guides for the three Calvados AOCs, available online (in French) at:
        http://www.inao.gouv.fr/public/produits/detailProduit.php?ID_PRODUIT=3070 (Calvados)
        http://www.inao.gouv.fr/public/produits/detailProduit.php?ID_PRODUIT=3071 (Calvados Pays d'Auge)
        http://www.inao.gouv.fr/public/produits/detailProduit.php?ID_PRODUIT=3075 (Calvados-Domfrontais)

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