Calvados: just a local product?

Like its south-western counterparts, calvados is several centuries old. Yet, it remains a “regional” product in the eyes of many people in France. Rightly or wrongly? Let us focus on an underestimated spirit.

Anyone who has wandered in the streets of Trouville or Honfleur has seen the many souvenir shops and cellars overstocked with calvados bottles. However, as soon as you leave Normandy, the apple-based spirit becomes scarce on the wine and spirits cellars shelves. Does that imply that calvados is only a regional product? From history to production Monsieur Baco tells you everything you need to know about calvados.

Calvados, an overlooked pillar of the French spirit tradition

Whereas the words “ancestral”, “ancient”, “century-old”, conveying a sense of depth and nobility, are often used to refer to cognac and armagnac, calvados in France is more often associated with “trou normand”, a traditional interlude consisting in drinking a shot of spirit between two dishes in Normandy. However, beyond the clichés, the history of calvados is as old as its south-western cousins. 

From the first trees to the spirit

The history of calvados is as deep as the roots of its trees. If distillation really took off between the 16th and 17th century, the production of apple cider and pear cider, which make the base of calvados, goes back to the dawn of the second millenium. It is indeed between the 10th and the 12th centuries that cider apple trees were imported from Biscaye, in the north-west of Spain, to Normandy. On the other hand, pear trees are endemic and are said to be the oldest arboreal species in Normandy. 

Furthermore, whereas distillation in Charente and Gascogne stemmed from the necessity for maritime trade to preserve goods during transit, distillation of cider was impacted by the production variations. Since the yield of harvests differ from one year to another, Norman producers started to distill a part of their production during the good years to ensure the sustainability of their stocks. 

A local consumption rooted in history

As the massive exportations of cognac can be linked to the ancient commercial bounds connecting Charente to England, the localisation of calvados is to be understood in the light of its history as well. As a matter of fact, from the 16th century to the fall of the Old Regime in the 18th century, wine, because of heavy taxes, represented important tax revenues for the Crown. Because of that, cider sales were not welcome in the regions where wine was produced and apple and pear ciders were thus only consumed in three departments (Normandy, Brittany, and Maine) for about two centuries.

Today, the consumption of calvados has spread beyond French borders : 55% of sales happen abroad (source IDAC). However, demand remains weak in France and sales, which are boosted by tourism, are mainly concentrated in the region. 


Grass, a role beyond the postcards frame

When one thinks about Normandy, green orchards usually come to mind. But grass is not only about aesthetics and actually plays an important part in fruit farming. By capturing nitrogen in the soils, grass limits the level of nitrogen in the fruit and helps to regulate the fermentation speed. On top of that, the turf cushions the impact when ripe fruits fall from the trees. 

Ripe pears (© Julien Boisard | IDAC)


Two types of orchards are grown in Normandy. 

  • High stems: the rather slow growth (minimum 7 years, maturity around 15 years) and moderate yields give the most interesting fruits. The height of the trees enables cattle farming which contributes to maintaining biodiversity, getting rid of the fruits that fell too soon and repelling pests. This kind of orchard is also called “meadow-orchards” (no English equivalent).
  • Low stems: those trees grow faster (minimum 3 years, full maturity around 8 years) and provide better yields than high stem trees making harvests easier. This type of orchard was quite popular in the 70’s. Nowadays, low stems orchards are less in use because of the growing demand for a more sustainable agriculture. Low stem trees also have a shorter lifespan. 
“Meadow-Orchard” (© Julien Boisard | IDAC)

Unlike apple trees, pear trees grow more slowly (it can take 15 years before the first fruits appear). Pear trees can live for several hundred years and can reach 15m in height. 

Pear tree (© Julien Boisard | IDAC)


230 cider apple varieties and 139 perry pear varieties are allowed to produce cider (number to adjust depending on the appellation). Those are different kinds of fruits than the ones we eat. 4 apple categories are used to produce cider: 

  • Sweet: more fragrant but also sweeter, they contribute to raise the right ABV level
  • Bittersweet: combining sugars and tannins, they constitute the base of most ciders and dominate the orchards. 
  • Bitter: more tannic and less sweet, they bring structure to ciders.
  • Acidic: they bring length and freshness and help to preserve ciders. 

The phenolic (bitter and bittersweet) varieties must account for at least 70% of the orchards. The harvest season usually starts in September and ends in January. Fruits are mostly picked up after they fall. 

Making Process

Once harvested, fruits are crushed or grated to extract some pulp. The pulp is then pressed to get a juice that is fermented until it gives a cider reaching a minimum of 4.5% ABV. At that point, the cider is still. Sparkling ciders are obtained after a long fermentation happens inside the bottle giving them their natural effervescence. 

Cider is then distilled and aged in oak casks. Since distillation can take place all year long, the age of the cider is important. A young cider will give lighter and fruitier spirits whereas older ciders will give more complex spirits suited for aging

The humidity of Norman warehouses helps to maintain a certain level of water inside the casks and decrease the ABV. 

Aging labels

  • « Three stars », « Three apples », « VS » = 2 years minimum.
  • « Vieux » ou « Réserve » = 3 years minimum.
  • « V.O. », « Vieille Réserve » ou « VSOP » = 4 years minimum.
  • « Hors d’Âge », « Très Vieille Réserve », « XO », « Très Vieux », « Extra », « Napoléon » = 6 years minimum.

Overview of the 3 registered designations of origin

Calvados production and style are protected by 3 geographic appellations.

Geographic appellations areas (IDAC)


  • Minimum 35% of high stem orchards.
  • Fermentation lasts for a minimum of 21 days. 
  • Both double distillation in a pot still or continuous distillation in a column are permitted.
  • The aging in sessile oak (quercus petraea) or in European oak (quercus robur) lasts for a minimum of 2 years

Calvados Pays d’Auge

  • The poor and superficial soils made of clay-limestone slopes, sometimes loamy and siliceous with flint stones constrain the strength of the trees and give smaller fruits with more polyphenols and sugars
  • A minimum of 45% of high stem orchards.
  • Perry cannot exceed 30%.  
  • Fermentation lasts for a minimum of 21 days. 
  • Only double distillation (giving subtler spirits) is allowed. 
  • The aging in sessile oak (quercus petraea) or in European oak (quercus robur) lasts for a minimum of 2 years

Calvados Domfrontais

  • The deep and moist soils made of silt, schist and granite are perfectly adapted for the culture of pear trees which dislike drought. 
  • A minimum of 80% of high stem orchards. 
  • Pear trees must make up for a minimum of 25% of the orchards.
  • A minimum of 30% of perry must be used in the making process. 
  • Fermentation lasts for a minimum of 30 days. 
  • Only continuous distillation in a column still is allowed (which gives strong and fruity spirits).
  • The aging in sessile oak (quercus petraea) or in European oak (quercus robur) lasts for a minimum of 3 years

The mention “Production fermière” means that the calvados has been entirely produced onsite (from the trees to the bottling). 

Towards a modernisation of a centuries old spirit

In order to make Calvados more fashionable, some producers play with the finish using sherry casks, port casks, cognac casks… Sometimes, the use of certain casks forces producers to label their spirit as “Eau-de-vie de cidre” instead of “Calvados”. Indeed, aging the spirit in american oak (quercus alba) and japanese mizunara (quercus crispula) is not allowed. It is fair to say that the house Christian Drouin has become a master of that game as their un-aged Blanche and Experimental series (finished in ex-Jamaican rum and ex-Japanese whisky American casks) prove it. Let us also mention house Boulard and their 12 Barrels range (mizunara casks, ex-rye casks…) and house Coquerel (ex-bourbon casks).

Moreover, unlike cognac and to a lesser extent armagnac, the production of calvados remains in the hands of independent producers (more than 300). However, a young independent bottler, 30 & 40, has recently launched on the calvados market. 

And what about pommeau?

Pommeau de Normandie is a fortified juice (¼ calvados for ¾ juice). It gives an “aperitif” drink between 16% and 18% ABV containing at least 69 gr of sugars/litre. Pommeau has to be aged for at least 14 months in oak casks. 

In a nutshell

Calvados is a centuries-old spirit obtained from the distillation of apple cider and perry. Three appellations protect the unique style of calvados. The phenolic fruits used in the making process differ from the fruits we eat at our tables. There are 2 types of orchards: high stems (giving fruits of better quality but lower yields) and low stems (growing faster and presenting higher yields). While “Calvados Pays d’Auge” is distilled twice in a pot still (giving subtler and more complex spirits), “Calvados Domfrontais” relies more on high-stem pears and is distilled in a column still (giving stronger and fruitier spirits). More and more brands experiment with different finishes in various casks even if they lose the right to name their spirits “Calvados”.

(Cover picture © Julien Boisard | IDAC)

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