At the entrance of a clearing, not far from the Pays d'Auge apple orchards
Discover Calvados → Production

Fruit, wood, time
& creativity

Craft­ing a great spirit is painstak­ing work and requires a unique savoir-faire. 3 mil­lion trees and 300 pro­du­cers per­petu­ate the age-old tra­di­tion of Calvados-making.

In the beginning, there was an apple (and maybe a pear or two)…

White flowers of apple trees

It all begins in the orch­ard. Although they require much work through­out the year, trees are pruned at the end of the winter, before the start of flower­ing and pol­lin­a­tion in the spring. Bees and other pol­lin­at­ors play a vital import­ant role in the devel­op­ment of the flowers, and there­fore in the devel­op­ment of the fruit.

Sim­il­arly, grass between the rows is a fun­da­ment­al part of the pro­duct­ive eco­sys­tem: it pre­serves the rich­ness of the soils and softens the fall of the ripened fruit.

But the most import­ant period is that of the har­vest, which usu­ally starts in Septem­ber and fin­ishes in mid-Decem­ber for the latest-ripen­ing varieties.

Unlike eating apples or pears, cider fruits are small and are par­tic­u­larly rich in tannins.

Apples are clas­si­fied into four fam­il­ies: sweet, sharp, bit­ter­sweet and bit­ter­sharp. It is the subtle blend of these dif­fer­ent vari­et­ies which gives the cider that will be dis­tilled its bal­ance and char­ac­ter, which then come through in the Calvados.

The apples are classified into four families: sweet, sharp, bittersweet and bittersharp.

Once harvested, the fruit is brought together, sorted and cleaned before being mashed. The pulp is then pressed to extract the juice, which is known as the “must”.

The must is nat­ur­ally fer­men­ted in tank. The spe­cific­a­tions do not author­ise pas­teur­isa­tion or the addi­tion of gas, acid or sugar. The fer­ment­a­tion pro­cess trans­forms the sugars con­tained in the must into alcohol.

The ciders are ready to be dis­tilled when the sugars have been com­pletely con­sumed and the alco­hol con­tent is at least 4.5% abv at 20°.

There is a min­im­um of 21 days, in which time the fer­ment­a­tion takes place, between the juice extrac­tion and the dis­til­la­tion for Calvados and Calvados Pays d’Auge. This min­im­um increases to 30 days for Calvados Domfrontais.

Wooden boxes used for harvesting are placed on top of each other
The famous slated crates © J. Boisard

An important element

Cider or perry is trans­formed into Calvados through dis­til­la­tion, a pro­cess that sep­ar­ates alco­hol from water. When the cider is heated, the alco­hol it con­tains — due to its lower boil­ing point — evap­or­ates before the water.

The still is the instru­ment which col­lects these alco­hol vapours and con­denses them to obtain an eau-de-vie in which the volat­ile sub­stances that make up the bou­quet are found.

The type of still used for this process is of great importance.

Two types of still coex­ist within Calvados’ three appel­la­tions: the pot still and the column still (fixed or mobile).

The Calvados appel­la­tion is the only appel­la­tion to allow the two meth­ods of distillation.

  • Panoramic photo of all the elements that make up a pot still.
    The pot still at Distillerie Groult © J. Boisard
  • Column still of the Garnier distillery
  • Description of the distillation process on a board
    Diagram of a pot still
The pot still at Distillerie Groult Diagram of a pot still

For the Calvados Pays d’Auge, a double distillation is carried in a pot still, usually made of copper.

The cider is added to the boiler and heated. The alco­hol vapours rise, are col­lec­ted in the still head, enter the swan’s neck, then move through the cool­ing coil which is sur­roun­ded by cold water.

In con­tact with the coolant, they con­dense to liquid form. The “heads” and the “tails”, the vapours from the begin­ning and the end of the dis­til­la­tion which are rich in higher alco­hols and will be redis­tilled with the next batch of cider, are extrac­ted to obtain the “brouil­lis” or “petite eau” (with 28–30% abv.).

Close-up of an oak barrel with the words

Five or six first distillations are required to obtain enough brouillis at 30% to be added back to the boiler for the second distillation.

As before, the “heads” and the “tails” of the dis­til­la­tion are sep­ar­ated. What remains is the heart of the dis­til­la­tion, the “bonne chauffe”, which must not have an alco­hol strength of more than 72% coming off the still.

To save energy, the cider destined for the next round of dis­til­la­tion is added to the cider heater. This helps to cool down the alco­hol vapour which passes through it, and heats the cider to 65ºC before it is sent into the boiler.

swan neck of a still
copper element of a still
characteristic element of a copper pot still

The column still is mandatory for the distillation of Calvados Domfrontais and is widely used for Calvados.

An alcoholometer is used to measure the alcohol content during the distillation process
Alcoholometer © Maison Périgault

It is com­posed of three ele­ments: the boiler, the dis­til­la­tion column (sep­ar­ated into three cyl­indric­al sec­tions named the strip­ping column and the con­cen­trat­ing column, each made up of two plates with bub­bling ele­ments) and a cider heater.

The cider rises by grav­ity through the cider heater and even­tu­ally reaches the top of the strip­ping column. It des­cends towards the boiler from plate to plate via over­flow outlets.

Through­out its jour­ney, alco­hol is removed under the effect of the heat. The vapours pro­duced from the stripped cider rise and, coming into con­tact again with the cider, are enriched with volat­ile ele­ments: alco­hol, esters and aromas. These vapours also cross the plates of the smal­lest column (the “con­cen­trat­ing” column) and are con­densed in the cider heater thanks to the cold cider. This res­ults in a dis­til­late with less than 72% after the heads and the tails are removed.

Distillations in a pot or column still produce a colourless and astonishingly floral and fruity eau-de-vie, which will gain colour and develop beautifully over time, in contact with the wood.

The magic of wood and time

Depend­ing on the appel­la­tion, Calvados can only be sold after a min­im­um ageing of two or three years. It is aged only in oak bar­rels, from sessile or ped­uncu­late oak.

In con­tact with the air through the wood, the alco­hol con­tent and volume slowly decrease through the pro­cess of nat­ur­al evap­or­a­tion. This is what is com­monly known as “the angels’ share”.

The angels’ share

Calvados is aged in very dry oak barrels and the contact with the wood gives it the elements it needs to develop over time.

The tan­nins in the wood give it a spe­cif­ic hue, and the con­tinu­ous exchanges between the young eau-de-vie, the wood and the ambi­ent air allow it to devel­op its fin­esse and fullness.

In cer­tain dis­til­ler­ies, the young Calvados is first aged in 250 to 600-litre new oak bar­rels, which con­tain a lot of tan­nins, to give it colour and char­ac­ter before trans­fer­ring it to older bar­rels, some of which can be a 100 years old.

A large illuminated oak barrel
A ray of sunlight crosses a Calvados cellar

Other producers prefer to transfer the Calvados directly into 1,000 to 10,000-litre used vats, which are used both for ageing and storage.

Gradu­ally, the Calvados’ aromas will become finer and its colour deeper, going from golden to a deeper amber hue. The aromas of fresh apple, very pro­nounced in a young Calvados, will evolve towards more com­plex aromas of cooked apples and oak and devel­op notes of vanilla, honey, spices or wal­nuts, signs of a fine maturation.

close-up on a Calvados vat

Vintages or blends

To be legally released for sale, Calvados must be at least 40% abv

A man holds an alcoholmeter

This alco­hol con­tent is obtained by the cellar master gradu­ally adding pur­i­fied water to the eau-de-vie.

This del­ic­ate oper­a­tion is referred to as reduction.

Through­out the ageing pro­cess, Calvados is aer­ated and trans­ferred to other bar­rels to make it softer and to impart cer­tain desir­able characteristics.

The cellar master’s train­ing and exper­i­ence, gained through years of tast­ing, are what enables the cre­ation of Calvados with the unique fin­ger­print of the producer.

In a kind of alchemy, the blend is skill­fully craf­ted by com­bin­ing eau-de-vies of dif­fer­ent ages, from vari­ous har­vests or terroirs, bring­ing togeth­er the com­ple­ment­ary char­ac­ters of each.

Blending is a delicate operation based primarily on tasting. Achieving the perfect balance requires enormous skill.

Before bot­tling, these blends must be roun­ded off for sev­er­al months during which time the dif­fer­ent bou­quets will com­bine and grow richer.

Some “cask strength” versions of Calvados are unreduced.

They have a nat­ur­al alco­hol con­tent cre­ated by the evap­or­a­tion of the eau-de-vie over time. Dir­ectly taken from the top of the barrel, they are usu­ally bottled on demand and have a won­der­ful con­cen­tra­tion of aromas.

A traditional barrel containing Calvados
Dark light in a Calvados cellar with an oval barrel

New trends

The classically aged or vintage Calvados remain the vast majority of the production in Normandy. However, Calvados is also part of a growing trend that we are seeing across the broader spirits market.

The last few years have seen the emer­gence of Calvados that are “single cask” (from one single barrel) or “cask strength” (straight from the barrel at its nat­ur­al strength without water added), as well as Calvados with vari­ous “fin­ishes” (mat­ur­a­tion, after a first ageing, in bar­rels that have con­tained anoth­er spirit or wine, such as Bour­bon, Whisky, Sherry, Saut­ernes, etc.).

These new generation Calvados have given this age-old eau-de-vie a new lease of life and ensure that it is firmly part of an exciting trend within the spirits industry.

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The Calvados Trio with their Terroirs & Appellations

At the bottom of an apple tree

What is an AOC?

An Appel­la­tion d’Ori­gine Con­trôlée (AOC) is a French label identi­fy­ing a product whose vari­ous stages of man­u­fac­tur­ing (pro­duc­tion and pro­cessing) are car­ried out in the same geo­graph­ic­al area and accord­ing to recog­nised know-how. The concept was born in 1905, but it was not until 1935 that a legis­lat­ive decree cre­ated the Appel­la­tion d’Ori­gine Con­trôlée. The first AOC status was awar­ded on 15 May 1936. The Calvados Pays d’Auge became an AOC in 1942. Today there are 3 AOCs for Calvados: Calvados (1984), Calvados Pays d’Auge and Calvados Dom­fron­tais (1997).

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