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.
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.
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)