If the tasting notes below inspire an impulsive trip to the nearest bakery, that’s perfectly understandable. Calvados—Normandy’s signature apple brandy—is remarkable for its confectionary flavors: tarte tatin, gingerbread, apple strudel.
Marked by rich baked-apple flavor, vanilla and subtle spice, Calvados is an expression of the French countryside. Hundreds of apple varieties grow there, dotting the landscape with orchards where the branches hang heavy with fruit—at some distilleries in more pastoral settings, cows wait patiently beneath the trees for overripe apples to fall.
Several varieties of these apples (and sometimes pears) go into each bottle. Compared to France’s grape-based brandies, Cognac and Armagnac, Calvados is notably fruit-forward, showing ripe apple, pear and citrus notes where grape brandies show more dried-fruit notes, like dates or figs. There’s often an intriguing earthiness, too, with herbaceous or even savory, meaty notes popping up.
Between a robust, buttery texture from the copper-pot distillation process and confectionary notes from time in oak barrels—think almond, maple, caramel, vanilla and baking spice—it’s no wonder that “almond croissant” and “spice cake” start coming to mind during tasting sessions.
If all this bakery-speak is making you hungry, you’re in luck: Calvados is an ideal dessert pairing. Although the apple brandy itself isn’t necessarily sweet, it’s a good foil for fruit pies, tarts and other outrageous treats that tend to appear on the holiday table.
This festive season also means parties, so you might find yourself making cocktails. If you’re lucky enough to be gifted a bottle of Calvados, consider adding some to the mixing glass. Bartenders have long sung the praises of Calvados, because it plays so well with other ingredients.
No matter how you consume France’s apple-based brandy, it’s good to the core.
Lecompte Age 18 Years (France; Park Street, Miami, FL); $175, 98 points. A complex, excellent sipper. The rich aroma promises caramel, toffee and oak, which is delivered on the silky, lightly sweet palate. The finish is long, succulent and dessert-like, nuanced with cocoa, candied orange peel, apple compote, gingerbread and spice cake.
Père Magloire Memoire XO Calvados (France; Sazerac Company, Chicago, IL); $125, 95 points. Redolent with toffee, vanilla and dried figs, this brandy shows a flash of sweetness up front that suggests Sherry or Madeira, layered with rich caramel, dark honey and a creamy, rounded finish that flirts with cocoa and espresso.
Domaine Dupont Vielle Reserve Calvados (France; Domaine Select Wine & Spirits, New York, NY); $55, 94 points. This golden brandy is scented with rich vanilla and honey, plus a surprising herbaceous lilt. The bold flavor has a savory, almost meaty note at first sip, but finishes with more delicate freshness, fading into honey, white flowers and vanilla. This complex, distinctive sipper is worth getting to know.
Boulard XO Calvados (France; Palm Bay Imports, Boca Raton, FL); $80, 93 points. Bold, rich and rounded, this sip-worthy brandy shows plenty of maple and sweet caramel, leading into a spicy finish, with cinnamon, clove and a hint of orange peel.
Lecompte Secret Calvados (France; Park Street, Miami, FL); $2,500, 93 points. Savor this deep, dark sipper over dessert. The scent suggests cedar and oak touched with sarsaparilla and vanilla. The palate has a drying feel and starts with leather, cigar wrapper and cocoa, before rolling into a sweeter, gently warming finish edged with milk chocolate, espresso and spice.
Menorval XO Tres Vieux Calvados (France; Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York, NY); $41, 90 points. A lighter take on Calvados, look for pear and baking spice on the nose and a dry palate marked by honey, cedar, lemon peel and almond. The finish perks up with gentle lavender, nutmeg and cayenne.
Christian Drouin VSOP Pays d’Auge Calvados (France; Anchor Distilling, San Francisco, CA); $85, 90 points. Lush notes of salted butterscotch, maple and pear play against a drying core of oak; more fruit comes through on the finish. Relatively full-bodied, with a buttery, palate-coating feel.