Can Calvados be the comeback kid?

Overshadowed by Cognac, Calvados has been treated as a cooking ingredient or forgotten entirely in recent years. Today it's slowly but surely being rebooted by modern producers making a fun, fresh, approachable spirit, says Anthony Gladman, and positive sustainability credentials only enhance its revitalised image

Words by Anthony Gladman

Poor Calvados. Such a pleasure and yet so forgotten, so left behind. How did this come to pass?

For the past few decades its story was one of neglect. After a long, slow decline, le calva finally sank into the tar pit during the 1990s when the multinationals sold up and siphoned their money over to Cognac. Two French conglomerates were left to dominate production, both content to flog on the cheap to French and German supermarkets. The remaining producers — mostly tiny and traditional — didn’t have the clout to drive the category on.

‘The bottles look like they were designed by monks, which is extremely charming but not very commercial,’ says Alexander Darley, head of sales at Maison Sassy.

A bottle of Double Jus
Double Jus is a Calvados aperitif sweetened with fresh cider apple juice and given depth with a tiny drop of rum

Lately, however, a new breeze has rustled through Normandy’s orchards. Sales are up; five per cent by volume in 2022 and eight per cent for exports. Bars are keen to put Calvados back on their menus and mix it in cocktails. ‘Calvados is really ringing some bells’ says Darley. ‘People in the trade, their ears prick with Calvados. They’re sick to death of the spirits that have been jumping through the hoops over the last couple of years.’

Maison Sassy and other modern producers like 30et40 and Avallen have worked hard to update the spirit’s image, starting with the liquid itself. In the past it was too harsh, too dry, too bitter, too laden with boisé (a wood syrup used to skip long years in oak). Sassy’s Calvados Fine is the opposite: fresh, clean and light — all about the apples it sprang from rather than wood maturation. It’s an approachable spirit that’s ideal for mixing.

Bars are keen to put Calvados back on their menus and mix it in cocktails

Avallen, too, produces a spirit that is light, fresh and made for mixing. It acts as a discovery brand, inviting drinkers into the category. With no gnomic age statement for drinkers to decode, it is less intimidating than a VO, VSOP or austere XO. It is simply apples — like cracking open a bottle of cider but with more punch.

30et40’s Double Jus is a 23% ABV Calvados aperitif sweetened through the addition of fresh cider apple juice and given depth with a tiny drop of rum in the blend. It is superb.

An orchard where apples are grown to make Calvados
One of the orchards that provides fruit for the Calvados produced by Christian Drouin

Still, Calvados’ modern makers are not forsaking barrels completely. Some use them to pull drinkers of other spirits into the fold. As well as Double Jus and its other blended bottles, 30et40 has a range of single cask releases, much like those found in Scotch whisky. The aim, they say, is to talk the same language as a whisky lover would, using these releases to showcase the category’s diversity.

Established producers like Christian Drouin and Domaine du Coquerel have found this approach fruitful too. Coquerel, which is the largest independent Calvados producer and exporter, releases single cask and also cask-finished products. This is nothing new. The port of Le Havre has long supplied Normandy’s distillers with a cheap and ready supply of casks that once held rum, port, sherry, Madeira and all manner of wines. Cask-finished Calvados is as delicious as you might imagine, but Calvados producers, who as a breed never seemed quite at home with marketing, simply failed to publicise it.

Avallen was co-founded by Tim Etherington-Judge and Stephanie Jordan

Cask-finishing pedigree is not the only light Calvados kept hidden under a bushel. It is also probably the world’s most sustainable spirit. Not that you’d have known by listening to its producers – until lately.

Avallen leads the way here. It was co-founded by Stephanie Jordan and Tim Etherington-Judge, whose initial plan was to launch the most planet-positive spirits brand. Deciding which spirit came second. ‘We didn’t know we were launching a Calvados,’ Jordan says. It was the apples that drew them in. Traditional orchards are carbon sinks, mosaic habitats and examples of regenerative permaculture with minimal water and pesticide use. ‘That took us down the rabbit hole that led us to this dusty category that was absolutely ripe for innovation. Alarm bells rang — but the good ones — and we were like: we’ve got to do a Calvados.’

Producing each bottle of Avallen equates to removing 2.73kg of carbon from the atmosphere. For spirits, water use is also key. Each bottle of Avallen is made with just 1.2 litres of water, 13 times better than the industry average a bottle of scotch, for example.

Avallen recently listed with high-end retailer Harvey Nichols in a fully recyclable paper bottle. ‘I don’t think brandy has ever looked as sexy,’ Jordan says.

Calvados tasting at 30&40
Sampling spirit from casks at 30&40

Calvados has a lot going for it. In cocktails it is fresh, fruity and delicious. Time in wood renders it adaptable and sophisticated. Drinking it is good for the environment. It ticks all the boxes that younger drinkers care about, and they have responded with enthusiasm. But will it last?

Retailers think so. The Whisky Exchange has seen its Calvados sales rise 25% in volume since 2019. The rise in value is even greater, at 44%, indicating a stable trend rather than a flash in the pan.

In cocktails, Calvados is fresh, fruity and delicious, while time in wood renders it adaptable and sophisticated

Maison Sassy’s Darley says calvados is far more accessible than a whisky or a traditional grape brandy. ‘Everyone knows the flavour of an apple. If you’ve never had something that’s been put in a barrel before, Calvados is a good place to start.’

To this end, Sassy has partnered with East London cocktail bar Coupette to produce a house Calvados. The bar’s signature Apples cocktail is just the thing for a warm summer evening, a simple blend of spritzy, carbonated apple juice rounded off with calvados for a satisfying boozy depth. It feels at once timeless and modern — like le calva itself.