Loving Calvados to the Core

The Orchard Keeper Calvados cocktail is perfect for autumn days.
The Orchard Keeper Calvados cocktail is perfect for autumn days. (Bill O'Leary - The Washington Post)
By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A few years ago, near the end of a tedious and unsuccessful autumn work trip, I found myself dining alone in the Italian restaurant of an airport hotel in Lyon, France. It wasn't a bad restaurant, but neither was it uplifting. I ate a passable lasagna and drank an average Rhone red as I and the other solitary diners silently watched the bar's television, where a soccer game was mired in a scoreless tie. For days, it had been cold and rainy, and I was pretty depressed.

Then came the dessert menu. I'm not a huge dessert person, but at that moment something made me not want to go back to my room. So I ordered tarte Tatin. And then, scanning the after-dinner drink list, I lighted upon Calvados, which at that time I'd never tasted. All I knew was that Calvados was an apple brandy from Normandy, and because I had already been thinking about apples for dessert, I ordered one. The tarte Tatin arrived, and it was okay. Then came the Calvados, a Christian Drouin Hors d'Age. From the initial swirl, sniff and swallow, the liquid was a revelation: love at first sip.

Suddenly, I felt warm and happy and laughed at myself for being down; I mean, please, I was on a business trip to France, not Des Moines. I must have spent the entire second half of the soccer game with that glass, and I went back to my room a little less lonely. That night started me on a journey that resulted in Calvados becoming one of my favorite spirits, if not my absolute favorite during the colder months.

I tell that anecdote for a couple of reasons. First, I'd like to suggest that more restaurants take better care in developing their after-dinner drink menus. Where else are people supposed to learn to taste fine, top-end spirits? Yet there frequently is a lack of creativity or even thought put into these offerings. A fine restaurant that would never think of putting a middling bottle on its wine list or a banal drink on its cocktail menu will too often stock the after-dinner menu with boring, overpriced staples. How many have interesting fruit eaux de vie, or aged rums, or extra-a?ejo tequilas, or cask-aged Norwegian aquavits, or fortified wines that aren't port or sherry?

Perhaps the after-dinner drink menu is too often left to the sommeliers, many of whom -- even some of the best, it must be said -- suffer from a lack of spirits knowledge. Maybe the bartender should usurp this job from the sommelier.

I would like to make the case once again for Calvados. (My last attempt was "Falling for the Taste of Apple in a Glass," Oct. 15, 2008.) We hear so much about Scotch and cognac, and rightly so. But Calvados provides a similarly sophisticated and complex experience. People speak of Calvados as having a big personality and big heart, and though that's cliched, it's also pretty true. The drink evolves in the glass as few spirits do. With a good Calvados, you sip, and then smell and sip again two minutes later or 10 minutes later or 20 minutes later. Each time, it's as if you're drinking a different brandy.

I recently visited several Calvados distillers in Normandy, all of them part of a new generation in their 20s and 30s who have begun to take over the family distilleries. This youth movement in Normandy feels timely and important, especially because Calvados's reputation has suffered in recent decades, even in France.

"Calvados has a bad image in France because there was a lot of [inferior] Calvados on the market for years," said Guillaume Drouin, 31, who has taken the reins from his father at Christian Drouin. "My father's generation thinks Calvados is a drink for 80-year-olds, because that's what our grandfathers drank. But people my age, they have absolutely no opinion on Calvados. So maybe there's an opportunity there."

I also visited 39-year-old JérĂ´me Dupont, who will take over for his father at Etienne Dupont, and Jean-Roger Groult, the 27-year-old heir at Roger Groult.

The younger generation is bringing more innovation to the traditional farmhouse Calvados methods. Guillaume Drouin, for instance, was educated as a winemaker and has worked in the Languedoc region as well as in Australia and South Africa. Now he is applying his training to Calvados, with innovations such as finishing the spirit in port and sherry casks, and even Banyuls casks.

"I used to think Calvados was something second to wine," Guillaume said. "To be honest, when I was younger, I was a snob. Then I had some wine friends taste my father's Calvados, and they were like, 'Oh, my gosh, I can't believe your family makes this. It's so complex and amazing.'

"Look," he said, grabbing a bottle of the Drouin 1973 vintage. "This is simply more complex than wine, more complex than a Lafite Rothschild."

Despite the spirit's sophistication, what struck me most about visiting these distillers was the total lack of pretentiousness. At Groult, for instance, Jean-Roger's sister, Estelle, stopped by the tasting room with an apple pie she had just baked.

I ate the pie, I sipped Groult's lovely 30-plus-year-old Doyen d'Age and I was back in Lyon: sitting in a hotel bar and making a beautiful discovery.

Jason Wilson can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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