An orchard in a bottle

Times Staff Writer

Just remember, no swirling the Calvados.

Calvados, or “Calva” to the French, isn’t an easy drink. Poured young, the apple brandy spits fruit and fire. But allow it to age, and its cask-aged essences capture the tastes of autumn. Sip it and so many flavors come to mind: apples, honey, game. Mainly apples. New apples, baked apples, apple juice. It is the only spirit that can be safely partnered with runny cheese. Above all, Calvados is a drink for a feast day.

While most brandy is made from wine, Calvados is made from apple cider, the fermented sort. It took the French to observe that bad cider makes good Calvados. More precisely, it took farmers in Normandy, the province where place names on a map read like a menu: Camembert, Livarot and Pont L’Eveque. There, cows graze among apple orchards, and cider, not wine, is the traditional accompaniment to pungent mold-ripened cheeses.

Unlike wine, cider does not improve with age. So rather than discard it after it went flat, the cider-makers thought, why not run it through a still? This involves heating it to the point that the alcohol evaporates and is diverted through a tube. When they did this, in a happy fluke of chemistry, the distillate smelled of bright young apple juice. The aromatic compounds that give apples their fruit flavor evaporated at the same temperature as the alcohol. Apple brandy was born.

Like so many cheeses of Normandy, the new drink took a place name, Calvados, the district where making it is taken so seriously that producers distill each batch twice to eke out every last apple-scented fume.

It seems odd that we Americans haven’t adapted the process just as avidly as our grape growers imported French winemaking. But making Calvados takes more than an orchard. For starters, the Feds frown on stills on farms, says John Fellman, a pomologist and flavor chemist at Washington State University in Pullman. Also, our apples are the wrong sort. Our farmers tend to grow crisp, juicy eating apples, he says, which gum up cider presses. For cider, you need mealy apples that ripen slowly, so they can be picked late. This way frosts will already have killed much of the bacteria and yeast that will cause runaway fermentation.

Blending starts on the bough. In France, producers will grow or buy a mix of sharp, bitter-sharp, bittersweet and sweet apples. In some areas, the sweet apples will be augmented by pears. It is best to leave aside here the mashing, macerating, siphoning and bottling that it takes to make cider. Suffice it to say that in brandy-making, it’s best if the cider is flat and fully fermented, so all the sugar has been turned to alcohol. Then it is time to extract that alcohol.

This is the kind of reductionism that makes grown accountants cry. It takes 14 to 15 liters of cider to make a single liter of Calvados. You can get more, but only if you make cheap stuff. When distilling the cider, good producers discard the first part and the last part, called the “head” and “tail” cuts, and keep only the middle, or “heart cut.” The head and tail cuts contain the long-chain alcohols that guarantee hangovers.

The best producers repeat the process, distilling the extract twice for the purest possible product. By the end of the double distillation, the liquor is close to 140 and 150 proof, colorless and fiery. Evaporated with this firewater is an intense distillate of apple essence.

Before aging, it must be diluted to a tolerable proof, about 70, and set in casks. During aging, the best producers will shift it from brandy barrels to casks recently used for cider. The combination of oxygen and fresh fruit will add complexity to the brandy. The fruit’s original tannins will have been lost in the still, but aging the brandy in old sherry casks will introduce new tannic notes, along with a tawny color. The longer it is aged, the more anguish the accountants feel. Every year, a certain amount evaporates. Cellar keepers call this “the angel’s share.”

Charles Neal, an importer based in Richmond, Calif., says that understanding the effect of age on Calvados is essential in picking the bottle. Words on the label that might sound like quality assurance to us read more like a caution in France. “When you see the words ‘selection,’ or ‘fine,’ on the bottle, that means it is 3 years old,” he says. “When they mention that level in France, they’ll also often put, ‘Not generally advised for consumption, but for cooking.’ ”

Reaching maturity

But more than three-fourths of the stuff we are sold in the U.S. is fine or select or both. Look at the price tag, and it’s no wonder why we put away the flambé pan and got out a glass. A half bottle, or 375 milliliters, of Coeur de Lion, a large, reputable export house named after Richard the Lionhearted, will run about $15. Frankly, there’s no crime in drinking it. Just be prepared for the bright fruit and fire.

At 6 years old, you’re into what’s considered the drinking age in France, says Neal. Certainly, the 6-year-old Calvados of traditional estate producer Adrien Camut is a fully arrived digestif. The apple flavor seems more mellow, baked, more like a caramelized apple tart. The alcohol warms your throat but does not burn it. This is brandy, fuller on the tongue than the 3-year-old distillate, more viscous, with the unique Calvados fillip: It begs drinking, with food as accompaniment. A nibble. A touch more apple pie, a nut, a slice of cheese.... Could you pass that drumstick? For this, by Camut, expect to pay in the range of $60 for a 750-milliliter bottle.

The biggest surprise is what happens when Camut leaves it to age for 30 years. The alcohol becomes even more mellow, the texture is still supple, but the baked apple flavors have gone, replaced by what tastes like a bright new fruit. What has happened, explains chemist Fellman, is that the tannins and vanillins imparted from the casks will have finally broken down, unmasking the apple essences from the original distillation.

Finding a 30-year-old Camut is a trick: Neal says he gets perhaps eight cases for the entire country every year. Once these reach the shops, a single bottle will cost around $150. So most of us will be looking at younger vintages, from 6 to 15 years old. This is a mixture of pain and pleasure. The pain occurs in the wallet. We should expect to pay from $60 to $70 for these. Among the half a dozen varieties at the Wine House in West L.A., for $69, there was a 15-year-old Chateau du Breuil. This has the big body and strong caramel notes that indicate it was purposefully aged to have cigar-room finesse, if at the cost of some of the wilder apple flavors.

Whatever the age of Calvados, these apple essences are the point. To capture them, try using a tulip-shaped glass, not a brandy snifter. The Calvados-loving colleague who insisted on just such glassware for our possibly over-thorough research here at The Times, let out a yelp as tasters swirled their glasses, as one might with a brandy snifter holding Cognac. “You’re volatilizing the aromas!” she cried.

Evidently swirling agitates the apple essences, releasing them to the ether. “Calva,” she illustrated, is best appreciated by holding the glass perfectly still, a quivering nose held a respectful couple of inches from the rim. All the better to savor the autumnal perfume of apples harvested long ago, far away.