Calvados according to Drouin | Part 4

of Christian Drouin 22 dicembre 2022

How Calvados is produced

Although Calvados is considered as the world’s premier apple brandy, it remains to a large extent one of the best-kept secrets in the world of fine spirits and raises frequent question as basic as « What is Calvados? » or « how Calvados is produced? ». The know-how is age-old. It is both a science and an art. There is no secret in the production of Calvados but at each step of the production process you have to make a decision which is a trade-off between quality, cost and style.

Let’s try to make it simple: Calvados is a cider spirit produced in Normandy. The main stages of production are :

  • Harvesting cider apples and perry pears,
  • mashing and pressing fruits into must,
  • fermenting the must into cider 
  • distilling cider.
  • ageing calvados in oak barrels.

Agricultural distillers produce calvados exclusively from fruits grown on their property

A few decades ago, there were thousands of distillers in Normandy. Most of them have now given up producing Calvados. Today there are a little more than 300 producers and the first five houses achieve about 85% of total sales and 95% of exports.

Some agricultural distillers have their own press and still, others resort to a distiller coming with his travelling still. The distiller parks his still in the farmyard near a water point, pound or river. My father, Christian Drouin senior, started the production of his calvados by calling on a legendary travelling distiller: Pierre Pivet. He bought his still from him when he retired and for many years, the Drouin House produced its calvados with this former travelling pot still. Today, it stands in the middle of the distillery courtyard in testimony of the past. Distillers no longer crisscross the countryside. The same goes for mobile brewers who went from farm to farm to extract the juice from apples using their mobile press. Both are disappearing at the same rate as the agricultural distillers.

Harvesting cider apples and perry pears

Norman apple cider and pear cider are made from the juice of these bitter, bitter-sweet, sour or sweet apples. 

The annual harvest takes place from late September to the beginning of December depending on apple varieties. Mixes of early, middle and late maturing varieties enable the family to spread out the work. Today, the apples that fall on the ground are mostly picked up by machines. The apples should reach their optimum point of maturity before being pressed.

Fruit producers can be divided in two categories: those who transform the fruit and those who sell them to cideries. If one does not have a dry, aerated place for fruit to finish ripening, one has to pick only the fruit fallen on the ground that is to say those that are perfectly ripe, making it necessary to make various passages under one tree and therefore considerably increasing the cost of harvesting. This is the price for quality. Fruit has to be pressed when fully ripe and with fruit varieties ripening at the same time.

Mashing the fruit

Do not expect Norman farmers to trample apples or pears with their feet! As the fruits are very hard, they must be shred or crushed into a fine pulp before being pressed. As most of Calvados’s flavor is extracted from the skin, the fruits should not be peeled before crushing. The pulpy mass of crushed apples is called the mash. The most primitive way of crushing fruits was in a mortar with a pestle. Then came the horse-mill: a large, circular trough of stone or wood, with a big stone or wood wheel set in it that is turned by a horse. Nowadays, this step is performed mechanically with a grinder. 

Pressing the fruits

Batch presses are performed by loading a single batch into the press, then performing press “cycles’ which consist of different pressure steps.

Continuous pressing consists of a continuous process where mash is steadily loaded into the press while the juice and resulting pomace are continually expelled.

The manual nature of pressing in this way means that more labor is required.

If the objective of a producer is to produce at low cost, he will extract as much juice as possible from the fruit. But for superior quality it is better not to press too hard so as to leave most of the seeds intact. It takes 21 kg of fruit to produce 1 liter of Calvados at 70 % -that’s how much work goes into a bottle.

Once the pulp is pressed, the solid part, pomace, is separated and — most of the time — given to livestock. But if quantities are important, after drying, marc is sent to a specialized factory to have pectin extracted. 

The juice pressed from the crushed apple pulp is allowed to stand in vats until impurities rise to the top. The clear liquid between the brown cap and the lees is drained off.

Fermenting the must into cider

The pressed apple juice contains natural sugar and yeast, including airborne yeast present in the cellar and yeast coming from the skin of the apple. Cider is a beverage born of the slow fermentation of cider apple juice during the winter.

The juice ferments naturally for a period ranging from six weeks to a few months depending on the cellar temperature because yeast doesn’t work well when it is cold.  When fermentation is completed, the end result is dry cider. Distilling cider less than three weeks old is not allowed in Normandy.

By experimenting with distillations of different kinds of ciders, we have learned that cider’s age has quite a strong influence on the taste of the Calvados produced. Young ciders tend to evolve into smooth, round and fruity spirits, ideal for making La Blanche or young blends. Distillation of older ciders leads to more complex Calvados with higher acidity and volatility. These are the ones that evolve perfectly after a long period of aging and evaporation.

The Art of distilling

Distillation consists of separating the alcohol from the water. When cider is heated, the alcohol whose boiling point is lower than that of water evaporates first. Distillation enables the complex aromas of the cider to be extracted. In Normandy, cider goes through a single or a double distillation process according to the AOC: single for AOC Calvados Domfrontais, double for AOC Pays d’Auge, single or double for AOC Calvados.

The distiller, heir to the alchemists, exposes the cider to flames in pot stills in the Pays d’Auge, column stills in the Domfrontais, cuts the heads and the tails, to keep only the heart, the “coeur de chauffe” a colorless, ardent, scented eau-de-vie, « la blanche ». 

The distillation year begins on July 1 and ends on June 30.

For Calvados Pays d’Auge, cider must be distilled in batches in a copper pot still. 

The first and last runs (the heads and the tails) are separated from the heart of the distillation. Thus, production consists of two stages: the extraction of “petites eaux” (which contain 28 to 30% alcohol) followed by their transformation into calvados (which contains between 69 and 72% alcohol.)

For Calvados Domfrontais  and most of Calvados AOC, cider is distilled in single-stage stills (producing spirit directly) equipped of three taps to separate the heads and tails. The still is made of 3 parts: the boiler, the column and the condensation column. As it costs more, most producers go through single distillation for the production of AOC Calvados.

Aging in oak barrels or the art of matching spirit and oak.

When it leaves the still, Calvados is colorless. It has an alcohol content between 69 and 72% and cannot be sold as Calvados until it has been matured in oak barrels for at least two years (three years for calvados Domfrontais).  To bring the alcohol down around 40-43%, pure water must be added to dilute it. When I started taking care of Calvados, Pierre Pivet instructed me that water should be the age of Calvados, and recommended lowering significantly the alcohol strength when the spirit is young because it mixes much better than older spirit. The disadvantage of reducing young Calvados strength is that you need more casks as you also age the water and this costs more! 

 Calvados extracts various substances from the wood, one of them being tannins which give color and body. On contact with oxygen, various wood compounds dissolved in the spirit undergo chemical transformation. The most volatile compounds — which might give a young spirit hot or burning taste.

The cask choice is therefore one of the most important decisions in the process. Matching Calvados with the right kind of oak is the challenging responsibility of the cellar master. Managing a portfolio of casks is complex and requires experience in order to understand them. 

To understand what a specific cask does to Calvados, you must frequently taste the content because what the wood delivers changes over the years. My son Guillaume and I taste every cask at least once a year.

Depending on a cellar master’s desired effect, oak aging can take place in small casks or big ones, in new oak or old oak, in European oak of various origins. Other factors, such as manufacturing techniques and toasting treatments also influence different flavors and aromas. Small casks enable more exchanges to take place between the spirit and the wood, which results is an acceleration of aging, with the drawback of greater losses through evaporation (otherwise known as the angels’ share). For initial fill, Calvados may be matured in fresh, unused oak casks containing concentrated flavor compounds. New casks can be fine if the wood has dried enough to eliminate green tannins. Otherwise, tannins disguise the fruit aromas.

An old tradition in Normandy, which until recently had almost disappeared, is to use former sherry, Madeira and port casks because they don’t yield any bitter tannins and help give the spirit a finer color, more body and greater aromatic richness. These fortified wines used to be imported to the region in casks and bottled in the ports of Le Havre or Rouen, where the empty casks were available at cheap prices and very popular with farmers — both because of their price and the positive influence they had on aging Calvados. These casks reigned supreme until a change in the law required all sherry to be bottled in Spain, followed by Scotch whisky producers deciding to finish large quantities of whisky in sherry barrels.  Only sherry casks made from European oak can be used. Other kinds of casks that add a world of flavors to matured Calvados include cognac casks,  fortified wines casks, Pommeau de Normandie casks, or former dessert wines casks that held wines such as French Sauternes or Hungarian Tokay.

Large vessels made from old wood are simply aging containers, and don’t impart flavors from the wood. The wood is worn out, but it enables the oxidation process to go on. Such barrels are used to keep old Calvados or as marrying vessels for preparing blends. 

Adding caramel to achieve color consistency has always been a standard practice. However, a growing number of educated consumers are now aware that a young spirit might be pale yellow and that each cask gives a different color, and they are becoming increasingly suspicious when the color seems too dark for the assumed age and suspect added ingredients. If the Calvados was perfectly distilled, there is no need to add any sugar, as it is smooth enough. It is likely to be a matter of time before labeling regulations oblige producers to stipulate the use of added ingredients.

In old times Norman farmers enjoyed their Calvados without any water added. Today, Calvados is usually bottled with an alcohol content between 40% and 43%.  Some consumers consider they get more of the original flavors if the spirit is tasted at cask strength. If your palate is able to taste spirits at 55% or more, it might perceive some aromas better than others. Cask strength does not mean no water has been added. 

With the discrete complicity of the wood, the air and time, Calvados acquires color, bouquet and body, ready to be enjoyed in many ways.


Dal Magazine