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Spirits Feature

The Apple, Distilled

by Jordan Mackay
February 8, 2016

Twenty-five varieties of apples grow in the orchards of Calvados Camut, each one informing the flavor of the spirit.

A cold, drizzly November day in Normandy is nothing unusual. But Emmanuel Camut asks if I’m sure I want to brave the tall wet grass and mud in order to reach a small, locked shed in the middle of an orchard of gnarled apple trees. “Well, is it interesting to see the old stocks?” I ask. Tall and graying, at the end of middle age, Camut cuts a handsome figure in tall rain boots, a heavy hunting coat and a black fedora. “C’est incroyable,” he says emphatically, and so we go.

In today’s fast-moving world of spirits, so dominated by marketing and packaging, Calvados—still a largely rural and rustic product—is a dinosaur. Hardly known anymore even in France, it is one of those products under threat of being swallowed up by modernity. Compared to grain, grapes or sugar cane, cider apples give only a small amount of juice (it takes around 200 pounds of apples to yield a single gallon of brandy). Yet the apple can produce an amazing spirit. At its best, Calvados distills—literally and figuratively—the archetypal and familiar sensation of the apple into a substance of profound complexity and compelling resonance. I find it irresistible, and it’s certainly a joy during the dark, cold winter months.

It takes around 200 pounds of apples to yield a single gallon of brandy.
As Camut and I traverse a sea of impossibly green, wet grass, I often feel the hard nub of an apple underfoot. Occasionally, Camut stops and picks up a speckled and irregular knob of fruit, barely half the size of an apple you’d find in a grocery store—and offers it for taste. Some are slightly sweet, others less so; one zings with acidity, the next grips the mouth with powerful tannins. Twenty-five varieties exist in Camut’s orchards, each one informing the flavor of his Calvados. They are harvested after they fall from the trees. I flip on a flashlight to penetrate the darkness inside the cold, musty shed and see the shoulders of a number of beautiful wooden casks, bearing numbers like 1928, 1931. Camut siphons a small glass out of a barrel labeled 1898. The liquid is a deep, resonant brown with a touch of gold. It smells powerfully of toffee and caramel and brilliant cinnamon and nutmeg spice, and tastes like an idealized dream of an apple—burnished, sweet and deep. Not fiery at all, the spirit brings warmth into my chest and finally down to my frozen feet.

That it survives at all is a miracle, given that this countryside was under German occupation from 1940 through 1945, and saw heavy action during the liberation.

Camut makes Calvados in essentially the same manner as his grandfather Adrien did at the distillery founded by his own grandfather around 1850. The wooden foudres and other equipment are old and weathered; the still is wood-fired, as it always has been, requiring Camut and his brothers to tend the fire for 22 hours straight when they are distilling, adding a new log every 20 minutes or so. Distilling the domaine’s 3,000 hectoliters of apple cider is a three-week endeavor. “If you do something this way, it’s not a good business,” Camut says, laughing, but, he adds, “We will never change.”

Calvados Camut is not cheap. But the spirit is unique in the clarity and profundity with which it delivers the flavor of apple. The basic 12-year old can be found for about $100. The Rareté, an assemblage of Calvados more than 50 years old and including some of the oldest stocks dating back more than a century, sells for around $800.

In contrast to Camut is the young Guillaume Drouin, a fresh-faced lad in his mid-30s. His grandfather, a Norman, but an outsider to the Pays d’Auge, started Domaine Christian Drouin in the 1960s, creating a sensation with his desire to sell vintage Calvados. “He made Calvados every year for twenty years without selling a bottle, so that his son and grandson could sell vintages,” Drouin says.
This was an aberration in a region where the tradition is to combine stocks into multivintage blends to maintain consistency and supply.

At its best, Calvados distills—literally and figuratively—the archetypal and familiar sensation of the apple into a substance of profound complexity and compelling resonance.
Instead of using the great old wood foudres, Drouin’s Calvados spends time in a variety of small, used barriques—a practice instituted by his father, who commercialized the brandies starting in 1980. He bought most of the barrels from Cognac, but Guillaume has boldly gone a step further, taking a page out of the playbook of Scotch and rum, and moves various vintages into more exotic barrels such as Sherry, Muscat de Rivesaltes and Port for a year or so. As a result, wood character informs many of the bottlings: A 1986 from a muscat barrel smells of flowers, tobacco and spice; a 1993, aged a year in barrels from Château Guiraud in Sauternes, is supple and honeyed. The wood influence also comes through in the blends, particularly the VSOP, based on five- to ten-year-old brandies ($45).

Guillaume Drouin ages his Calvados in a variety of used barriques, a practice instituted by his father. Guillaume Drouin ages his Calvados in a variety of used barriques, a practice instituted by his father.
Drouin reveres Calvados tradition—and indeed the family subscribes to the old ways in their orchards, tending the tall, old trees organically and letting the cattle graze underneath them—very different from modern orchards of short trees and chemical farming. But he also believes the region must find new ways to sustain itself. “Only six million bottles of Calvados are made in total,” Drouin says, “a figure not even equal to one single-malt Scotch. One of our challenges is to get people to discover. How do you make people curious? You create a range to encourage them. We need a lot of different styles here in this region.”

Certainly a diversity of styles can’t hurt, at least in generating attention for the region. But whether a vision of Calvados that puts it on the familiar footing of whiskey will incite the curiosity of coming generations of spirits drinkers remains to be seen. To me, little is more compelling than the primal, pristine flavor of the apple, distilled. Its time will come again, as it always has.

photo by Alan Murray (above)

This feature appears in the print edition of February 2016.
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