Tales From The Top Shelf: Calvados

The knowledgable bartenders at Anvil Bar + Refuge set up a Calvados flight for this beginner.
The knowledgable bartenders at Anvil Bar + Refuge set up a Calvados flight for this beginner. Photo by Kate McLean
You don’t need a mustache or even a parlor to enjoy a glass of Calvados— this is America, we do what we want. It’s interesting, most people don’t like Calvados; they love it. When the subject is broached, often times a Calvados lovers will reveal themselves by groaning aloud and then saying Calvados. Or rolling their eyes in pleasure, followed by Calvados. For example, Antonio Gianola of Houston Wine Merchant expressed his affection in all caps, “…but Calvados is MY FAVORITE.”

Pulling the “why don’t we finish dinner off with a little Calvados,” card is super French and super cool, and what’s even more baller is enjoying a snifter in the middle of your meal—to make room for more food.

Real quick— Brandy is a distilled spirit that’s made from grapes (wine), or in the case of Calvados, apples and pears (cider). And it’s not sweet. Please road block the image of a bright green sour Appletini. In Normandy there are three appellations where it can be produced, the most famous one being Calvados Pays d’Auge Controlee where it’s distilled twice. As far as regulations go, the French are notorious for keeping a tight lid on things, which means no loosey-goosey surprises in terms of quality.

Calvados begins with the hundreds of different apple and pear varieties used to make cider. Some are bitter, some are bittersweet, some are acidic, some are sweet, and almost none of them are something you could pluck out of a tree and enjoy. They are small, hard, intense little fruits, that when pressed and fermented make crisp, tannic ciders. After distillation, the brandy hangs out in oak barrels which contributes a lot of flavor to the final product. Vanilla, toffee... Depending on the region it must be aged for at least one to three year though many age for much longer.

Fast forward to this spirit being accessible to enjoy— Charles Neal is your north star when it comes to Calvados. Whatever he imports, whatever he says, you can trust him. Other reliable names are: Adrien Camut, Etienne and Jerome Dupont, Roger and Patrice Giard (Domaine du Manoir de Montreuil), and Calvados Lemorton. It is fun to get bookish with specifics but if learning about all that stuff distracts from actually dipping your toes in, forget it. Let the education sink in naturally and let it begin with the aroma.

While tasting out of a balloon glass is beneficial for some spirits, this is not the case for brandy. Because it's so hot on the nose, a champagne flute or white wine glass really works best. All you’re going to get from a balloon glass is a whoosh of alcohol similar to Harrison Ford almost getting sucked out of Air Force One. Almost.

Most of us look for BIG flavors ALL the time (me), which is why sometimes it’s good to slow down and notice the subtle ones. Acidic hint of apple, the sweetness from pear, the wood. At first pour, it’s easy to differentiate a flight of Calvados by aroma alone. The real experience begins about ten minutes in when the nose is popping even moreso and the taste opens up to reveal the nuance of flavors that reflect where the fruit was grown and how it was handled. Calvados is a bit of a shy boy— wants to get to know ya, first.

Lemorton Réserve is a delicious place to start at $60 at Houston Wine Merchant, but before investing in a bottle, head on over to Anvil Bar + Refuge to taste around, they’ll set you up nicely. Half pours range from $6 to $28; and their list is extensive. Calvados can be found tucked inside the French Brandy section of the Captains List, pages 43-47.
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