Discover Calvados → History

A unique
history

From the Hes­per­ides to Steve Jobs, the Garden of Eden to the Beatles, Newton to Mag­ritte, the apple has cap­tured the ima­gin­a­tion since the dawn of man­kind. In Normandy, it is an emblem and Calvados is its standard-bearer…

Origins

Let’s start with Normandy. This region’s mild climate led to the planting of more apple trees here than anywhere else in France. 

The good people of Normandy have therefore always had to find ways of preserving their apples.

In the shade of the apple trees © J. Boisard

Trans­form­ing this fruit into a bever­age appeared to be the only solu­tion to ensure its pre­ser­va­tion. Against a back­drop of food scarcity and poor qual­ity water in tra­di­tion­al soci­et­ies, this was the sens­ible course of action.

Once pressed, apples con­sti­tuted the basis of what was con­sidered a “hygien­ic” drink. Once fer­men­ted, these juices became cider and, once dis­tilled, the cider became a cider eau-de-vie.

The first writ­ten ref­er­ence to cider dis­til­la­tion in Normandy is found in a manu­script dating from 1553. Gilles de Gouberville, a gen­tle­man from Cotentin (1522−1578), referred to stills and eau-de-vie in his Mém­oires. Local tra­di­tion cred­its him with the inven­tion of cider eau-de-vie and, by exten­sion the inven­tion of Calvados, although this pro­cess was likely to have already been in use by Normandy’s farmers.

In fact, the Arabs had intro­duced West­ern­ers to chem­ic­al research and dis­til­la­tion tech­niques in the 12th cen­tury. The first writ­ten ref­er­ence to a “still” appeared shortly afterwards.

This coin­cided with the arrival of new vari­et­ies of apple in Normandy. These vari­et­ies were rich in tan­nins and ori­gin­ated from Biscay in the Span­ish Basque Coun­try (which lent its name to the Bis­quet apple variety).

After the French Revolution and the creation of French departments (départements) in 1790, the name “Calvados” was officially born.

At this time, the spirit res­ult­ing from the dis­til­la­tion of cider was used solely for local and per­son­al con­sump­tion and this con­tin­ued to be the case until the 17th cen­tury when its repu­ta­tion star­ted to grow.

How­ever, its grow­ing pop­ular­ity in West­ern France was soon to be impeded by Col­bert who, seek­ing to main­tain the exports of wine eau-de-vie, a source of for­eign exchange for the State, decided to levy taxes on the export­a­tion of cider eau-de-vie before com­pletely ban­ning its ship­ment out­side of Normandy. This ban stayed in place until 1741.

Normandy’s eau-de-vie was renamed “eau-de-vie du Calvados” before gradually becoming known as simply “Calvados”.

It was not until the second half of the 19th century that Calvados became a true specialisation.

Production methods evolved, as did the modes of consumption.

The 1860s saw the cre­ation of the first indus­tri­al dis­til­lery at a time when this part of Normandy was exper­i­en­cing the impact of the devel­op­ment of trans­port routes. This gradu­al open­ing-up of Normandy brought with it new oppor­tun­it­ies which the pro­du­cers sought to take advant­age of. The growth of sea­side tour­ism also cre­ated new out­lets for the products.

At almost the same time, the phyl­lox­era crisis was des­troy­ing the French vine­yards which led to an increased interest in what had now become widely known as “Calvados”.

Distillation in the streets of Caen circa 1900 © Archives du Calvados
Café Lebouc, Rue de Vaugirard in Paris, circa 1900. © Lebouc

From cider eau-de-vie to Calvados

The first ref­er­ences to “Calvados”, not pro­ceeded by “eau-de-vie”, date back to the 1880s and are found in the fic­tion and novels of Flaubert, Zola and Maupassant. Up until that time, cider eau-de-vie had not enjoyed the same prestige as wine eau-de-vie, but now it took on great­er import­ance. It gradu­ally shed its repu­ta­tion as an unre­fined spirit and acquired a more pres­ti­gi­ous image.

Having long been pro­duced in Normandy’s farms using very rudi­ment­ary meth­ods, Calvados could easily have remained a local, rustic bever­age made in a some­what empir­ic­al fash­ion by the region’s farm­ers and “bouil­leurs de crus” (dis­til­lers).

There were around 100,000 distillers in Normandy in 1900

But interest in this eau-de-vie, and par­tic­u­larly in its aromas and fla­vours, con­tin­ued to grow.

A clas­si­fic­a­tion system was there­fore intro­duced based on cri­ter­ia that included the product’s ori­gins, appear­ance, aromas and age. Pro­du­cers began to take part in agri­cul­tur­al com­pet­i­tions and trade events and picked up awards for the qual­ity of their products.

The first classifications of cider fruit - late 19th century © Archives du Calvados

This pursuit of recognition and awards (which were proudly displayed on the bottle labels) forced the producers to enhance the quality of their eau-de-vies through improved production techniques.

They took more of an interest in devel­op­ments in agro­nomy and began paying atten­tion not only to the qual­ity of their fruit and cider but also to their dis­til­la­tion pro­cess and ageing conditions.

These com­pet­i­tions were also an oppor­tun­ity for them to build their rela­tion­ships with industry professionals.

This pro­gress was, how­ever, hindered by the First World War which had a con­sid­er­able impact on the industry.

Some­what para­dox­ic­ally, the Great War actu­ally helped to increase the pop­ular­ity of Normandy’s pro­duce through­out the whole of France.
Normandy was spared much of the fight­ing and it gradu­ally came to be France’s breadbasket.

In war­time France, Normandy con­veyed an image of peace, tran­quil­lity and lush, verd­ant coun­tryside. When it came to sup­ply­ing the war­time quotas, Normandy’s products were in high demand.

Calvados gained the nickname “Calva” and its popularity grew. 

However, a State monopoly on alcohol was introduced in 1916. From the 1920s and up until 1939, the State’s alcohol purchases upset the ecosystem for Normandy’s apples.

The pro­du­cers had to switch to pro­du­cing eth­an­ol alco­hol which was required for the man­u­fac­ture of explos­ives in regions loc­ated away from the areas of armed conflict.

The pro­duc­tion of cider fruit there­fore grew con­sid­er­ably in order to meet the demand for indus­tri­al alco­hol which reached 400,000 hl of pure alco­hol in 1938.

The dis­til­ler­ies con­tin­ued pro­du­cing cider eau-de-vie along­side the indus­tri­al alco­hol. This dual activ­ity, as well as the fraud that went with it, soon had the dis­til­lers up in arms. They deman­ded, in 1935 and 1936, that the tra­di­tion­al cider eau-de-vie pro­duc­tion be protected.

With no reg­u­lat­ory con­straints to adhere to, the pro­du­cers began to sell very strong eau-de-vies that they still referred to as Calvados. The product lost the high-qual­ity repu­ta­tion it had gained during the First World War and ‘Calva’ instead became syn­onym­ous with a strong spirit of no dis­cern­ible character.

It soon became the pre­ferred “stiffen­er” of work­men and bar-goers. Known as being a cheap and cheer­ful bever­age, it there­fore was not regarded very favour­ably by the Nation­al Des­ig­na­tions of Ori­gins Com­mit­tee when the latter was cre­ated in 1935, much to the dis­gruntle­ment of the hard-work­ing pro­du­cers who brought sev­er­al legal actions.

Mean­while, in the United States, Pro­hib­i­tion had led to a rise in the pop­ular­ity of cock­tail drink­ing. This new trend quickly spread around the world and Calvados was one of the most pop­u­lar ingredi­ents for many cock­tails. Ernest Hem­ing­way helped make the Jack Rose famous in his The Sun Also Rises. 

A variant of the Jack Rose cocktail © Belveze

The road to AOC status

The Second World War unfol­ded in what was a chaot­ic period for pro­duc­tion. The need for alco­hol for the pro­duc­tion of explos­ives cre­ated by the war led the author­it­ies mono­pol­ising all avail­able alco­hol resources except for those that had been gran­ted des­ig­na­tion of origin status prior to the start of the global conflict.

Calvados almost ceased to exist as a result, swal­lowed up by the alco­hol quotas required by the State.

An avalanche of apples! © Société historique de Lisieux

Producers were aware of the threat this posed to their business and endeavoured to build a reputation for Calvados as a naturally-produced spirit that was worthy of saving.

Thank you © US Army

Their efforts cul­min­ated in a first series of decrees in 1942 which led to Calvados Pays d’Auge’s clas­si­fic­a­tion as an AOC. 

At the same time the Appel­la­tions d’Origine Régle­mentée (A.O.R) were estab­lished and were sub­sequently exempt from the requis­i­tion. Apple and pear cider eau-de-vies from numer­ous regions in Normandy were gran­ted AOR status under the Calvados name by decree on 9 Septem­ber 1942.

There were 10 of these AORs in total: Calvados du Calvados, Calvados du Dom­fron­tais, Calvados du Perche, Calvados du Merlerault, Calvados du Cotentin, Calvados de l’Av­ranchin, Calvados du Pays de la Risle, Calvados du Pays de Bray, Calvados du Mor­tainais, Calvados du Pays du Merlerault.

This recog­ni­tion marked the start of a new era for the product. Pro­du­cers were obliged to adhere to a strict set of spe­cific­a­tions and the fanci­ful names of the pre-war era were replaced by a spe­cif­ic ter­min­o­logy and tightly-reg­u­lated pro­duc­tion methods.

From June 1944 onwards, the sol­diers who landed in Normandy also con­trib­uted to this new surge in popularity.

In the 1950s, the surge in alcoholism became a national issue in France and this led to heavy taxation, increased controls and better-informed consumers.

Calvados, the pop­u­lar and pre­vi­ously afford­able bever­age became con­sid­er­ably more expens­ive as a result. Around the same time, Amer­ic­an influ­ences were taking hold, par­tic­u­larly in Normandy, and the tra­di­tion­al French spir­its were some­what pushed aside. Normandy’s agri­cul­tur­al land­scapes also evolved to increase the space for live­stock rearing.

In 1966, Calvados pro­du­cers formed the BNICE (Nation­al Inter­pro­fes­sion­al Board for Calvados and Cider and Perry eau-de-vies) with the object­ive of gradu­ally devel­op­ing a higher-end product with strong added value. Yet it was not until the 1980s that they really suc­ceeded in doing so, thanks to the ini­ti­at­ives of a hand­ful of pro­du­cers who helped to revive a real interest in Calvados.

The focus had now turned to the quality of the product, from the planting and grafting of the apple trees to the harvesting of the crop, using respectful techniques that did not damage the fruit, and the ageing of the spirit at constant temperatures.

In 1984, the 10 offi­cial AORs cre­ated in 1942 were grouped togeth­er under the “Calvados” appel­la­tion. Calvados Dom­fron­tais was clas­si­fied as an AOC in 1997 in recog­ni­tion of its savoir-faire par­tic­u­larly in the pro­duc­tion of pears for perry making.

Today, all the Calvados dis­til­ler­ies are grouped togeth­er and organ­ised within the IDAC (inter­pro­fes­sion­al asso­ci­ation of cider-based con­trolled appel­la­tions) along­side the cider works engaged in the pro­duc­tion of Pom­meau de Nor­man­die or AOP/PDO ciders and perries.

Read more about the his­tory of Calvados:

Le Livre des Calvados, by Chris­ti­an Drouin. Edi­tions Corlet.

De la goutte au Calvados, by Sylvie Peller­in-Drion. Edi­tions PURH.

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Fruit, wood, time & creativity

Production

Can you make Calvados from all types of apples?

No. Unlike table fruit, cider fruit (apples or pears) are small in size and par­tic­u­larly rich in tannins.

Apples are clas­si­fied into four fam­il­ies (sharp, bit­ter­sharp, sweet and bit­ter­sweet). It is the subtle blend of these dif­fer­ent vari­et­ies that gives the cider to be dis­tilled the bal­ance and char­ac­ter that will later be found in the Calvados. All the vari­et­ies of cider apples and perry pears are listed in the appen­dices to each appellation’s specifications.

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