Modernising Calvados

28 June, 2022

The apple-based spirit’s newest incarnations are at odds with outdated consumer perceptions, but a new breed of producer is working to change this.

Calvados is the underdog of French spirits. Fiercely championed by a small in-group of spirits aficionados, foodies, and bartenders it has been viewed by a wider section as an unsexy relic – but a wave of new forward-thinking brands is changing that. 

“Calvados has never been trendy. It was that dusty bottle your grandma had at the back of her cabinet and poured over Christmas cake once a year,” says Tim Etherington-Judge, the former Diageo global brand ambassador who alongside, Stephanie Jordan, co-created one such new brand in Avallen. 

Patchy consistency and the harshness of less than professionally produced liquids created an unfavourable perception of calvados and, unlike France’s other spirits AOCs, Cognac and Armagnac, the category’s high quality producers didn’t seem to be interested in marketing the stuff. 

The result was an increasingly elderly fanbase and a need for mass education. 

“Even in France, people quite liked it, but the image was dusty and old fashioned,” says Xavier d’Audiffret Pasquier, co-founder of Maison Sassy a cider producer that launched its first calvados last year. “Our mission is to bring calvados back to life. We want to almost promote calvados like a gin, as a very modern product. 

“My family has produced cider and calvados since 1852 so there is a long history behind us, but it was only for consumption by our friends and family, it wasn’t commercially sold, and it wasn’t professionally made.” 

Image issues

Homemade versions of the spirit have been an important tradition within the category but may have served as a barrier to widespread appeal. 

“Calvados is special, but it was underrated,” says Alex Mermillod, brand manager at Christian Drouin. 

“It was a dusty bottle that your grandfather distilled poorly in the local cellar. Most of the calvados drunk by Norman people for many years was not professionally produced and was not quality, and the image was affected by that.” 

One group outside of France where calvados was always popular was the bartending community. “I knew from my bartending days that bartenders really liked calvados for a number of reasons,” says Etherington-Judge. 

“First, it’s delicious. It has a very approachable flavour profile, not complex like a mezcal. But also, as a cocktail nerd, if you go back to some of the historical cocktail books, like The Savoy Cocktail Book or The Flowing Bowl, calvados is a regularly used ingredient. 

“As we saw when the rye whiskey revolution took off with Bulleit, it was because bartenders had seen rye listed in all of these old cocktails and then they had an available rye that they could start utilising in those old recipes.” 

Coupette is a calvados bar in London that has helped contextualise the spirit to a new generation of fans. Opened in 2017, the bar placed at 18 in the 2018 World’s 50 Best Bars list and number 23 the following year. 

“[Calvados] has a reputation as a harsh, very strong spirit that’s hard to drink, very funky and unpleasant that you just use 5mm in a cocktail, but we’re now seeing a modernisation of the category,” says Andrei Marcu, Coupette bar manager. 

“There are so many things that I love about the spirit. It was the fruitiness that attracted me first but there’s also the history and the place it comes from is incredible. 

“And it’s insanely versatile. Sometimes it’s more than a cognac. There’s such a huge variety of apples, especially in Normandy. When you’re there you taste apples with flavours that you could never imagine. It’s beautiful, it can have layers that you’ll never find in any other spirit.” 

Coupette’s most famous creation, a cocktail simply named Apples, is perhaps the category’s greatest ambassador outside of France. The recipe is simple – each month a different calvados is mixed with the pressed and filtered juice from a different variety of apple and carbonated. The result is as delicious as it is understandable. In 2019 it was named Cocktail of the Year at the Class Bar Awards and Coupette recently launched it as a canned RTD. 

“It’s probably the easiest sell we have had on the menu,” says Marcu. “There’s no explanation, it’s two ingredients and it’s ever-changing, we rotate the apples and the calvados. All we want to do is promote this category as much as we can because we love it. We know how beautiful it can be and how it works in different drinks, it’s just so cool.” 

Calvados’ versatility has made it an essential spirit for many 21st-century bartenders, but it’s the liquid’s approachability that will transition it into drinks cabinets. 

“Once we introduce people to an Avallen tonic or an Avallen apple juice people really love it,” says Etherington-Judge. “Someone described our Avallen tonic as apple-y champagne, which is a tasting note that I’ll take to the grave. I’ll milk that for all it’s worth.” 

Modern techniques

Brands like Avallen and Maison Sassy are recontextualising calvados for a younger, more casual audience. Christian Drouin, meanwhile, is looking outside the category, to modern techniques within the wider spirits world to bring calvados to a new market. 

The brand’s Expérimental series features cask swap collaborations with spirits brands from around the globe and has proved hugely successful among spirits aficionados. 

“It’s the first time people want to collect calvados,” says Mermillod. “We knew our first release with [Jamaican rum brand] Hampden [Estate] would make a lot of noise beyond just rum and calvados fans, but it was the fastest selling calvados in history, we sold out all 1,296 bottles in 10 days. After that success, the plan was to launch a new release every six months.” 

Since the launch of the Hampden Estate cask finish, the brand has released finishes with Japanese whisky brand Mars, cognac brand Hine, and another Jamaican rum brand Long Pond. 

“In the past two years, the range has been key to getting more people into calvados,” continues Mermillod. 

“And there is now interest from wine aficionados as well as spirits aficionados. It appeals to wine people because calvados is gastronomic, it works really well at the end of a meal but also the environmental credentials appeal to the wine world where there is a growing focus on sustainability, and even if it’s been available for more than 400 years, there’s still something special. 

“On a young version, you’ve got something fresh, crisp, and fruity, but you can also age in cask and the complexity and depth of the product increases, and you go to apple pie or tarte tatin, which is understandable to people who like gastronomy.” 

Sustainability credentials 

Calvados is a category at odds with itself, the perception never quite aligning with reality. Approachable but niche, an inconsistent homemade product that’s protected by an AOC, something difficult to market but, given that every spirit brand now brags about sustainability credentials, should represent an open goal for advertisers. And calvados has a case for being the world’s most sustainable spirit. 

“We call ourselves an accidental calvados because we didn’t set out to create one, we set out to create the world’s most sustainable spirits brand,” says Etherington-Judge. 

“We went right back to the raw materials that are used to create alcohols and instead of using the usual metrics of cost and flavour, we put the environment first. Based on four metrics – carbon emissions, biodiversity, water consumption and pesticide and fertiliser use – we analysed the ingredients and that research led us to apples,” he continues. 

“The trees are carbon sinks, they support biodiversity in the traditional orchards of Normandy, there is no artificial irrigation, and there’s very little pesticide and fertiliser use within the orchard. From an environmental perspective, the orchards of Normandy are fantastic.” 

Every bottle of Avallen produced removes 2.73kg of CO2 from the atmosphere, and each bottle of Christian Drouin removes 2.95kg. The climate crisis has changed buying habits – a 2021 report by Business Wire found that 85% of people indicated they had shifted their purchase behaviour to be more sustainable in the last five years. 

In the past five years, calvados has become a rather open secret – 2020 losses notwithstanding, the category has been in steady growth both domestically and overseas, but still, the sector reeks of unrealised potential. 

Modern energetic brands are creating a previously unseen buzz around the liquid in both food and drinks circles, acting as both educator and hype man. The old school may soon have to face a choice – follow suit or get left behind.

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