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How 'Bout Them Apples?
My guide to Calvados, with my top-20 bottle picks, and my annual holiday plea to splurge a bit on the best apple brandy.
A busload of German tourists had just left the tasting room of Calvados Christian Drouin, leaving me all alone with a glass of the 1963 bottling, a particularly memorable vintage. This was about eight years ago, and it was one of those booze moments I’ll always remember.
Guillaume Drouin, Christian’s son and the third-generation to run the estate, had been pouring me vintages dating back to the mid-20th century. The 1995 was silky and elegant, the 1986 big and floral, and the 1972 profound. But I kept circling back to the 1963, and asking Drouin for just another little taste. It was one of the strangest, most complex spirits I’d encountered: aromas and flavors of both forest and bakery — butterscotch, pine, mushroom, chocolate, exotic spices — and, above all, the taste of the greatest fresh apple tart. Every time I came back to the glass, there was something different, and the finish stayed with me long after I was done.
“A Calvados like this is more complex than even a premier cru of Bordeaux or Burgundy,” Drouin said. “This has the same level of ambition.”
So, then, an obvious question: Why don’t more people drink Calvados? It’s a question that’s puzzled me for over a decade, as I’ve been closely observed and reported on the region. I’ve tasted dozens of producers and made numerous trips to Normandy, and I’ve featured its beautiful apple brandies in two books. Over the years, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I love Calvados. Beyond journalism, I’m a fan. Calvados and I, we roll deep.
If you’re less acquainted with the spirit, I encourage you to check out my Calvados Primer (free at Vinous), which gives a full overview of the appellation and the spirit:
There are no wine appellations in Normandy. Grapes, revered elsewhere in France, are an afterthought in this region that stretches out into the English Channel on France’s northwest coast, about a two hour drive from Paris. The climate is just too unpredictable—hot and sunny one moment, rainy and windy the next. Forget about grapes in Normandy. Here, the apple is king…
Outside France, spirits aficionados tend to overlook Calvados when discussing the world’s great brandies…But those among us who love the apple brandy from Normandy know what the uninitiated are missing. No less than the great New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling, in his classic food memoir Between Meals, declared Calvados “the best alcohol in the world.” In Liebling's opinion, Calvados “has a more agreeable bouquet, a warmer touch to the heart, and more outgoing personality than Cognac.” Though, he did admit that “not everybody has had the advantage of a good early soaking in the blessed liquid.” (to read more)
Not too long ago, someone in the industry challenged me about Calvados. He insisted that Calvados was a “nice” spirit, but even at the top end, it (in his words) “didn’t rise to the level of great Cognac or Scotch or even old Jamaican rum.” Whoa, fighting words. Luckily, this person is a friend and so things didn’t devolve into fisticuffs.
He was wrong, but his assertion made me think more critically about my favorite apple brandy. Why doesn’t Calvados get the love and respect it deserves?
One simple reason may be the time-quality-price ratio. Take the life-changing Christian Drouin 1963 I mentioned. The bottle I tasted was 54 years old (bottled in 2017). I see it retailing right now for $799 in the U.S. It’s totally worth it if you have the loose change, but sadly most of us do not. Understandably, things that age for 50+ years do not come cheap or easy. After the last time I tasted the 1963, Christian Drouin himself told me that he’d almost made the decision to destroy this vintage in the 1990s because it had become so undrinkable—a testament to how profoundly the aging process transforms spirits.
Conversely, at the lower end, from $35 to $50, I’m too often disappointed by the Calvados I find. To get something truly special, something that will convince you of amazing this spirit is, you’re probably looking at over $100, possibly approaching $200.
Sounds crazy, right? I’m guessing few of us have ever spent over $100 for a bottle of anything. I’m not suggesting anyone should. But to keep things in perspective, you’re likely not chugging this level of spirit or mixing it in a cocktail. These are for special occasions. They last forever, unlike wine. There are 25 one-ounce pours in every 750-ml bottle of spirits. Do the math. On a regular basis, you may be spending more on middling pours at your local bar. Consider a holiday splurge. Still, I’ve also included five “value” Calvados picks in my top-20 below running $55 to $75.
When people talk about Calvados, you often hear them talk about decline. It’s often reported that 60 years ago, there were more than 10,000 Calvados producers in Normandy. Most of these, of course, were apple farmers who distilled for personal consumption, much of it rough stuff that became known by the slang term calva —the sort of thing old men drank with their morning coffee. Now, only about 300 producers of Calvados remain, though only about 20 brands are known outside the region. In the U.S., less than a dozen or so producers are widely known. Who among those dozen would I recommend? Honestly, only a select few.
The standard answer would be those from Pays d’Auge, the most prestigious bulls-eye of Calvados’ three appellations, consists of 3,252 hectares, and more than 50 producers. But who among them are making Calvados expressions that belong on the world stage?
In Pays d’Auge, the trio of top-quality producers I keep coming back to are Christian Drouin, Adrien Camut, and Roger Groult. Sure, there are a few other individual Pays d’Auge bottlings that I love—Château du Breuil 15-year comes to mind. But, for me, Drouin, Camut, and Groult all represent the current gold standard in Pays d’Auge.
All three grown their own apples, but in the cellar they have slightly different approaches. Roger Groult and Adrien Camut both used wood-fired stills, and focus mostly on blends and use a solera-like system of aging, adding younger brandies to the older ones. “We’ve been doing solera aging for more than 100 years without knowing it was called that,” quips Jean-Roger, the sixth-generation distiller of Roger Groult. Both estates use very large, decades-old barrels. “In the big barrels, we lose maximum angel’s share. The angels drink more per year than we sell,” jokes Emmanuel Camut. Christian Drouin, on the other hand, focused on their deep roster of vintages, among the very best in Calvados, and they experiment with finishes from different sorts of barrels— port, Sauternes, Banyuls, Rivesaltes, and others.
If I’m looking for value in Calvados, these days I’m mostly looking outside of Pays d’Auge, toward the so-called “lesser” appellations, Domfrontais and AOC Calvados. Were there any worth recommending?
In the wider Calvados appellation, a column still can be used, and single distillation, similar to Armagnac, is permitted. An ocean of middling brandy comes from the wider Calvados AOC, but a few shine. Look for names such as Domaine du Tertre, Michel Huard, or Claque-Pépin.
Outside of Pays d’Auge, many producers include a small amount of pears in their younger Calvados. Pears are higher in acidity and often create a softer, delicate spirit. In Domfrontais AOC, pears take on huge significance, because the blends here must contain at least 30 percent pears. Many producers, like Lemorton, use 70 percent or more. Domfrontais only achieved AOC status in 1997. Before that, most of the brandy here was clandestine and illegal.
So what are we looking for when we taste great Calvados? Always the apple peel. If you can’t feel the apple peel, then there’s too much manipulation. Guillaume Drouin believes Calvados should have ambition and complexity. Emmanuel Camut and Jean-Roger Groult will tell you Calvados should always maintain a core (no pun intended) of rusticity (or is it rusticness?). I think both opinions are correct. Great Calvados should be complex and should retain that rustic character.
With blends, I often find myself looking for hors d’age (“beyond age”) a label term I’m usually skeptical with in Cognac or Armagnac. With French brandy, hors d’age is a vague term, with no hard definition. But in Calvados, I find that hors d’age is generally more elegant, drinkable, and a better value than XO or other “reserves.” Still, even with that rule of thumb, hors d’age can range wildly in age (from 6 to 18 years) and price (from $60 to $200).
Maybe it’s just me getting older, but lately I find myself preferring the older expressions. In any case, below are my top 20 Calvados picks for this holiday season.
Five “Value” Calvados Picks
Everyone defines value differently. These days, I believe $55-60 is as low as I would go for quality Calvados, one that I would enjoy neat rather than use in a cocktail. Is $55 to $75 a value? I guess it all depends on your definition. When I look at categories like tequila, mezcal, rum, or whiskey, I’d say it’s comparable. Click on the links to buy.
Lemorton Réserve, AOC Domfrontais, $50
Perhaps it’s this inexpensive because of the pears? It’s a great deal regardless. Domfrontais brandies can have a wild edge, and you find that here in this six-year-old bottling. It’s all kept in balance, though, with subtle rich pear skin and pear blossom aromas that give way to freshness and structure, with an intriquing note of membrillo at the midpalate and a juicy finish. (40% abv)
Roger Groult 8 Year Old, Pays d’Auge, $60
This 8-year-old bottling is a reminder that Calvados doesn’t always need decades of aging. Intense nose, with baked apple, mulled spice, and sandalwood. But in the mouth it’s fresh and juicy, with ripe and crisp apple notes, and a creaminess at the midpalate. Notes of cardamom, cinnamon, and peppercorn throughout that slides into a long finish. Always a good, value introduction to Calvados. (41% abv)
Claque-Pépin Hors d'Age, AOC Calvados, $60
As youthful and inexpensive as I would go for a Calvados to sip neat. Aged a minimum of six years (with some older brandies in the mix), this is surprisingly complex. Warm, rich pear and stone fruit aromas, with deeper notes of manzanilla and antique varnish. Woody but attractive, with fleshy apple and lots of baking spice throughout, and a lengthy finish reminiscent of a baked apple-cinnamon dessert. (40% abv)
Michel Huard-Guillouet Hors d’Age, AOC Calvados, $75
Stands at the older end of the vague term hors d’age, with a minimum of 10-year-old spirits, and it’s a fantastic value. It opens with a gorgeous, rustic nose. There’s woodiness here, but it actually feels like a virtue, and well-integrated. Attractive, rich aromas and flavors of tarte tatin, interesting notes of pepper and even salted licorice, the overall effect is expansive and comforting with a long finish. Could this convince an American whiskey drinker to love Calavdos? (40% abv)
Adrien Camut 6 Years Old, Pays d’Auge, $75-90
Mellow and easy-drinking, I once wrote “the drinking experience seems akin to a reggae beat” But there’s also more going on here. This six year old is seamless, possibly even better than their 12 year old. Gliding acidity, fresh notes of cider, and dark notes of espresso and cocoa, and a great finish.
Six Worth the Splurge: Top Calvados Blends
The holiday season is coming. If you’ve ever wanted to experience a special bottle over $100, now is the moment. Click on the links to buy.
This expression used to be called “Privilège” and it’s frankly a privilege to find this hard-to-find bottle available in the U.S. This clearly shows what Camut’s solera-style approach achieves— the tension between youthful energy and the elegance of age. Gorgeous, intense, affable, complex. Warm aromas and flavors of pastry, toffee, and walnuts, buoyed by crisp apple peel. There’s finesse and precision, with spice and licorice notes balancing notes of rich dried fruit and apple pie. A stunning, fresh and supple finish brings us all the way back to the just-picked apple in the orchard. Truly otherwordly. (41% abv)
Adrien Camut 12 Year Old, $150
A bit of a tweener, and good value if the 18-year-old is just too much. Floral and honeyed on the nose, and spicy on the palate, though with great structure and deep apple-peel and grilled fruit notes, and a really long finish for its age. (41% abv)
Christian Drouin Hors d’Age, Pays d’ Auge, $150
This 18-year-old is fleshy and full bodied. I once described it, in Vinous, as “sort of like that portly guy who, once he hits the dance floor, shows off some surprisingly nimble moves.” There’s finesse here amid the big flavors. Warm buttery apple pie notes are balanced by russeted apple peel, licorice, candied ginger. Further sips bring more surprising flavors: espresso, cigar box, chocolate-covered orange peel. Great texture throughout, with a lively, enveloping finish. (42% abv)
Roger Groult 18 Year Old, Pays d’Auge, $100
Show me an 18-year-old spirit, in any category, that offers better value than this. Expressive nose, at first full of carmelized apple, then candied citrus, then finally crisp apple peel, herbs, and autumn leaves. Silky and expansive in the mouth, balanced by juicy freshness, baking spice, and mouthwatering acidity at the midpalate. The long, earthy finish is a savory swirl of russeted apple skin, fruit leather, espresso, and wet stone that’s unique for a brandy of this age. (41% abv)
Château du Breuil 15 Years Old, Pays d’Auge, $95
A traditional blend that’s been a Calvados benchmark for decades. Big classic notes of baking spice, baked apple, strudel, and tarte tatin, but the nose is bright and pretty, with aromas of apple blossom and violet. Expansive on the palate with hints of dark chocolate, espresso, fruit leather, balanced by a fresh acidity and wood tannins that slide into a generous finish. (41% abv)
Christian Drouin XO, Pays d’Auge, $90
Aged 8 to 14 years, this is benchmark blend for the region, complex and serious, and a solid pick if Drouin’s hors d’age or vintages (below) are out of reach. Bright floral, nutty nose, and in the mough a swirl of grilled, fleshy fruit, smoked applewood, tarte tatin, and an attractive underlying salty note. Super good value. (40% abv)
One Splashy Pays d’Auge Blend
This is a rare, Roger Groult’s former top bottling that now you can only get at at the cellar in Normandy (seriously, there are only a handful of these floating around). An old-time Calvados with intense autumnal aromas of mulled spice, whole baked apple, and nutty rancio. In the mouth, it’s gorgeous, with forest notes, suggesting a brisk fall night by a campfire with a flask. If you consider yourself a connoisseur, think about adding this rarity to your collection.
Now, Let’s Splurge on Some Special Vintages
(Or Should We Say ‘Pommages’?)
Vintages in Calvados are tricky. First of all, vintage is a bit of a misnomer when talking about fermenting and distilling from cider apples instead of wine grapes (perhaps we should use pommage instead?) As with all brandy, a vintage in Calvados only means something if you know when the spirit was bottled. Also, you need to know what “vintage” means to a particular producer. Christian Drouin, for instance, offers the deepest roster of vintages in Calvados, and for them, a vintage is the year the cider is distilled—meaning the year after the apples were harvested.
Since Drouin is the benchmark of Calvados vintages, here are my top four vintage picks from them, which you can find right now in the U.S. market. Click on the link to buy:
Christian Drouin 2002, $150
Bottled in 2021, and aged partially in Tokaji casks, and finished in Rivesaltes casks, this bottling drinks much older and complex than its age would suggest. Toffee, apple strudel, and tobacco swirl, along with hints of licorice and spice throughout and a beautiful finish that leaves a grin on your face. If you’re considering your first splurge on an over-$100 brandy, I would highly recommend this one. I also found this at the seemingly too-good-to-be-true price of $119. (42% abv)
Christian Drouin 1992, $234
This 29-year-old, aged partially in Cognac casks, is silky and soft, and generous. Calvados with lots of spice notes like cardamom and nutmeg, licorice, and mulled cider throughout. On the nose, there’s lovely iced cinnamon bun, but the mouth there’s serious structure, great acidity, and the savory finish of russeted apple peel. This has it all going on. (42% abv)
Christian Drouin 1982, $519
Okay, so maybe you’re not the sort of person who’s going to spend over $500 on any bottle of liquid. But if you ever were…this is one of my all-time favorite brandies (reminiscent of the 1986 I gave 98 points to a few years ago). I’ve tasted this vintage several times over the years, but this latest 39-year-old bottling is outrageously good. Deep topaz in color, the nose is like walking into a antique shop that’s also filled with ripe tropical fruit. Serious rancio, brightened by dried flowers, rich tobacco, clove, raisin, and dried apple peel. You could keep smelling this for hours, which is how long the finished feels. Absolutely amazing. (42% abv)
Christian Drouin 1962, $844
What can you say about a 45-year-old Calvados like this (bottled in 2007). This actually come from AOC Calvados, single distillation, with some percentage of pears in the mix. Very delicate and subtle, veering toward floral and herbal, but with textbook rancio. It’s a time capsule of what the best old-time, farmhouse Calvados must have been like. Is it as great as the life-changing 1963? I can’t say. A spirit like this asks as many questions about the drinker as the other way around. (42% abv)
Two Top Vintage Picks in AOC Calvados
AOC Calvados is supposedly the “lesser” appellation, but Domaine du Tertre’s vintage bottlings are exquisite—though difficult to find…and pricey to boot.
Domaine du Tertre 2006, $250
A rambunctious 15-year-old Calvados that’s rustic and pretty at the same time. Beautiful nose with aromas of apple blossom, spice, pastry, and candied apple. A tad fiery at its core, but it’s enveloped in a viscous, expansive blanket of toffee, chocolate, and apple. This is a Calvados that will convert single-barrel bourbon fans. (55.8% abv)
Domaine du Tertre 1998, $273
Stunning 18-year-old, one of my favorite Calvados I’ve tasted over the past few years. Seamless, evolving, a swirl of spiced apple, apple butter, candied apple, apple blossom, with an dynamic, endless finish punctuated by notes of Asian peppercorn and classic tarte tatin. Cannot recommend highly enough. (48.5% abv)
And a Pair of Pears: Two Vintage Domfrontais
In Domfrontais, I would place Lemorton in my pantheon of top Calvados makers. I like Lelouvier too, but they’ve become hard to find.
Made with 70 percent pears, this 30-year-old is a great example of how delightful pear brandies can be. Gorgeous aromas of green herbs, celery, fennel, marjoram, pear jam, and a note of honey. On the palate, it’s rich and herbal, with flavors of pear skin, green walnuts, and even a note of tobacco. Super unique and lovely spirit. (40% abv)
“Sexy Domfrontais,” says the importer, and I would have to agree. Notes of licorice, walnuts, dried blossom, candied citrus, salted lemon, campfire, but still the underlying aromas and flavors of ripe pear. There’s incredible freshness and stunning length here for such an old brandy. (40% abv)