Though the drink dates back at least 500 years and is steadily gaining in popularity, it arguably has not yet had the widespread attention that it fully deserves. Hailing from Normandy, unlike the grape brandies of cognac and armagnac, calvados is distilled from cider or perry. And what started as a way for this orchard-rich region to preserve its fruit come harvest, has evolved into a terroir-driven spirit worthy of sipping and savouring.
As calvados is made from cider that is then distilled into brandy, its taste depends on its blend of bittersweet, sweet, sharp and bittersharp apples or pears; the terroir of the different orchards; and the casks it’s aged in, and for how long. In short, there’s a lot of variation. There are also three calvados-producing regions, all with their own appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC): Calvados Domfrontais, Pays d’Auge, and Calvados.
And though it must be aged in French oak for at least two years, most are aged for considerably longer. The age statement on the bottle applies to the youngest liquid in the blend. Terms you’ll commonly see include "VS", aged for at least two years, "Reserve", at least three years, "VSOP", at least four years, and "XO", at least six years.
While younger liquids tend to be great for mixing in cocktails or serving long with tonic, older products demand to be sipped slowly. There are currently around 300 producers still making the spirit – many are very traditional, with storied histories. But there are also new brands, such as Avallen, looking to shake things up.
In our list of the best, we’ve considered taste, value for money, mixability where applicable and depth of flavour, as well as how suitable each is for those who are newly discovering the category, as well as those that already love it. Here’s our round-up of the best.
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Avallen calvados, 40%
Launched on World Bee Day in 2019, this calvados has put a mission to save and protect “those fuzzy little winged warriors” at its heart. Described by the brand as an “environmentally positive” apple brandy, the entire production process, from the pesticide-free orchards to the labels made from waste fruit pulp, is intended to be as sustainable as possible. A contribution to the Bumble Bee Conservation Trust is made for each bottle sold, and the brand has also committed to planting 10,000 flowering plants in its first three years of business.
Taste wise, this is an approachable but still flavoursome introduction to calvados. Made using 40 different varieties from 300 different orchards, all located in the heart of La Manche, Normandy, its key identifiers are floral, fruity and fresh. It’s been aged for two years in French oak, then bottled with no added sugar, caramel or boisé. Beautifully ripe on the nose, there are apple cider notes, a little pepper and a hint of cinnamon. Serve long with tonic if you’re looking for something simple, and garnish with a wedge of apple.
Chateau du Breuil calvados pays d’auge 15 ans 41%
With its waxed lid and red-rope fastening, opening a bottle of this one feels like a ceremony in itself. Winner of a silver award at the World Calvados Awards, and a gold at the International Wine & Spirit Competition, you don’t have to just take our word for it that its good. With the youngest liquid in this aged for 15 years, we also think it represents excellent value for money. Fresh and deeply fruity on the nose, there’s also intense apple to sip, followed by a little chocolate, cinnamon spice and almonds, with a dry finish.
Boulard XO auguste calvados pays d’auge, 40%
A splurge, a treat, an indulgence if you will. With its thick, velvet mouthfeel, beautifully bold fruit and long, slow, almond-like finish, followed by a burst of even more fruit, this calvados sips beautifully from start to finish. This particular tipple is named in homage to the distillery's founder, Pierre Auguste, who opened it in 1825.
From the etched bottle to its incredibly well-rounded taste, it is worth the premium price tag. Just let this one sit in the mouth for a while, and enjoy its bold flavours developing, from candied fruits and apple to almond and gingerbread, right through to a little oak and vanilla.
Calvados Domfrontais hors d’age domaine pacory, 42%
This family-run estate in the Bocage Domfrontais region grows over 50 different species of pear and around twenty apples. Reflecting its orchards, this twice-distilled calvados contains a high concentration of pear, at around 70 per cent of the blend, which is then aged in oak. It stands out, with the wood adding to the pear, preserving the flavours of the fruit with a little sweetness, buttery toast and spice.
Domaine Dupont VSOP calvados, 42%
The Dupont family has been making its calvados and ciders since 1887, and has over 30 acres of its own orchards. Just like for wines, terroir is important when it comes to calvados production. The chalky soils of the Pays d’Auge region, for example, produce small but intensely flavoured apples. There’s a broad range of vintages and expressions to choose from, all double-distilled and aged in oak barrels for between two and 40 years.
We’ve chosen the VSOP, aged for five years, for its soft, rounded notes with a touch of spice. This is a smooth, mellow sipper that opens up to a little brioche, oak, vanilla, fudge and some leather. It's plenty good enough to sip neat (we recommend at room temperature), over ice, or with a drop of water.
Christian Drouin XO calvados pays d’auge, 40%
A little spice and depth from the House of Drouin, this XO calvados is made from bitter, bittersweet, sweet and sharp cider apples, double distilled in copper stills, then aged in former bordeaux, sherry and cognac casks. We love the rich ripe apple with a little citrus, gingerbread and hint of apricot and raisin. It's great to sip on its own and, though some may say it's sacrilege, the beautiful fruity notes mean it’s great in cocktails too.
Père Magloire calvados pays d’auge VSOP, 40%
Dating back to 1821, this brand is named for a Norman innkeeper that was known for serving remarkable calvados. And though there’s quite a range to choose from (if you can find it, the 20-year-old is something special), we’ve opted for the VSOP.
Made with apples taken exclusively from the Pays d'Auge area of Normandy, it's double distilled and aged in oak casks for at least four years before being blended and bottled. We love its bright, floral aroma, with a little jasmine and rose, and the rich honey, vanilla, hazelnut, and butterscotch notes. We think it’s a bargain too.
The verdict: Calvados
For its approachability, great taste, good value, versatility and its eco-credentials, we think Avallen is both a good first step into calvados for those new to the spirit, as well as a satisfying option for those that already love it. However, for those looking for a sophisticated splurge, the Boulard XO auguste is beautiful, while the Calvados Domfrontais hors d'age domaine pacory also offers great value.
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