You can easily figure out a bar manager’s secret passion. All you have to do is take a close look at the bottles behind his or her bar. No matter how diverse the selection, there is almost always a collection of spirits that are a bit out of place. Perhaps, it’s an oddly robust group of amaro or a carefully curated collection of vintage Chartreuse.
I’m, of course, guilty of this behavior, too. For me it is apple brandy, a spirit that every autumn seems to almost breakthrough to the mainstream, only to be misunderstood and tossed back into the pile of other seasonal offerings, like so many fallen leaves.
Bourbon may have been named America’s native spirit by Congress but apple brandy was drunk even earlier in the colonies. During cold New England winters, colonists would leave hard cider outside overnight allowing it to freeze. In the morning, they would throw away the ice. Since alcohol doesn’t freeze, what was left over after this rudimentary distilling, or “jacking,” process was a more concentrated alcoholic apple beverage.
This beverage became known as applejack and had as large a reputation for causing blindness from poor “distilling” as it did for getting the drinker drunk. But it wasn’t long before industrious entrepreneurs started improving the spirit’s production and actually using stills.
One of those distillers was Robert Laird, who served under George Washington in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. There are records of Washington requesting Laird’s family recipe for “cyder spirits,” which is the basis for the claim that Laird supplied applejack to the army. After the War, Laird built a proper distillery in Scobeyville, New Jersey. It is now the oldest licensed distillery in the United States. (In fact, it received license number one from the U.S. Treasury in 1780.)
But the colonists, of course, didn’t invent apple-based spirits. And while the fruit seems quintessentially American, people have been making calvados from apples in Normandy, France, for centuries. I recently had the pleasure of exploring the region’s history and visited the Christian Drouin Distillery and Orchards.
I stepped off the train in Pont-l’Évêque on a typically rainy Normandy day and was immediately greeted by Herve Pellerin, the impossibly charming representative of Christian Drouin. He was the perfect guide, given that he’s been working in the calvados industry for more than 30 years, since beginning with LeCompte in the 1980s.
Over morning coffee, Pellerin explained that when he started out most calvados in the region was drunk as “Café Calva” (coffee with a shot of calvados). At the time, a Café Calva was the same price as a plain coffee, which meant that calvados was considered essentially an inconsequential addition. Bars and restaurants were literally giving it away for free.
Calvados, like Cognac, Champagne, or Roquefort cheese, for that matter, has its own AOC, or appellation d’origine contrôlée. An AOC is a protected designation of origin for French products that is meant to maintain control and quality. (It also helps prevent competition from producers in other areas.) Calvados is required to come from Normandy, can only be made from a few specific varieties of apples and has to be aged for at least two years in oak barrels. It is also usually distilled just once. However, there is even a stricter AOC that Christian Drouin qualifies for known as Calvados Pays d’Auge. To gain that designation, a brand has to be in the growing region to the eastern end of Normandy and the brandy has to be distilled twice in a copper pot still. These differences cause a notable change in style and quality of the calvados.
Once we arrived at the distillery we were greeted by Guillaume, third-generation Drouin and the brand’s current head distiller. I spent the next several hours walking the grounds, picking fruit, talking production methods, and, of course, tasting calvados.
Attention to detail, history and flavor is what drives Drouin. The company currently uses 35 different varietals of apples, which is more than double the standard amount. Harvest begins in September and continues through December as various varietals ripen across the season. Even after ripening the apples need days or even months of resting off the tree to truly unlock their flavor.
Next, the apples are gently pressed and then fermented. Fermentation is all natural with native yeasts and can take anywhere from one to five months to complete. This fermentation produces a cider of about 6-percent alcohol, which is then double distilled in a traditional alembic copper pot still. Like so many perfectionists Drouin believes that the secret to great distillation is to take your time.
The apple eau de vie that is produced is then aged in oak barrels until it is deemed ready. The company is currently aging more than 1,200 casks of calvados and each one is unique. Some are former bourbon barrels, which have been aging for less than a year and are just beginning to soften the acidic nature of the apple spirit. In the cellar, there is even a 30-year-old former sherry cask and older barrels that stretch back to 1939. The Drouin’s catalogue of flavors and aromas rivals any that I have found in the great distilleries of the world.
It’s easy to see how the traditional production methods for making calvados would play well with American drinkers who are increasingly interested in historic and rare spirits. This trend has led to the rebirth of the Old-Fashioned and rye whiskey, and maybe next up is apple brandy. With any luck, in a few years, my collection of bottles on the back bar might not seem that unusual after all.