has worked as a production designer in the film industry for many years. Six years ago she took a hiatus from film and indulged her lifelong passion for food and culinary history by starting a blog dedicated to exploring the flavors and recipes of the past, while giving a flavor of the places and people that ate or served the dishes. She thinks she was an alchemist in a former life and has greatly enjoyed her blending and distilling experiments.
She would like to thank "Zymurgy Bob" from the American Home Distillers Association for guiding her through this complex process.
"Come," she said. "Let me have more of that old calvados, Ravic! It really seems to be a calvados of dreams." - Erich Maria Remarque, Arch of Triumph
I love the way great dramatic moments are forever being reanimated and reused. As they flow through pages or frames they often flip a switch of desire to drink the drink or taste the taste. In Per Petterson’s compelling tale I Curse the River of Time, the characters are in the thrall of that calvados of dreams that famously flows through Erich Remarque’s Arch of Triumph: “We said to each other, my mother and I, wouldn’t it be great one day to taste this liquor; a liquid that for me turned into the true magic potion, a golden nectar flowing through Remarque’s novel and on in multiple streams, acquiring a strange, powerful significance…”
Watching Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer steam up the screen while drinking calvados in the film version of Arch of Triumph makes you want to have what they are having, but it wasn’t a movie that got me to love calvados. When I was a kid, addicted to old movies, I didn’t pay attention to what was in a bottle. Aside from a sip of my mother’s martini and a nip of my grandfather’s port, I didn’t really drink until I was fifteen.
Truth be told, I came to my first taste of calvados kicking and screaming since it was apple-based booze that gave me my first hangover. I am embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t done in by anything rare or exotic. Au contraire, it was a few bottles of illicitly procured Boone’s Farm Apple Wine—soda pop sweet and lethal. (I still remember the two-day hangover with crystal clarity; I couldn’t bring my head above my heart for the first day).
I have loved calvados since I conquered my fears and tasted it in France a few years after that first disastrous encounter with Boone’s Farm. How surprising to learn that such a complex, ambrosial liquid as calvados could be made from the same fruit! That I thought it was magical probably had a lot to do with the atmosphere of the place: an ancient village that smelled like apples. From that point on it was my “calvados of dreams.”
Now when I watch “Arch of Triumph” my drink switch is definitely flipped. A creamy cider cocktail made with calvados and a bit of spice never fails in cold weather. It warms as well as any hearth: a Nog Normande. A bit swirled in a glass all on its own is delicious. I can hear Charles Boyer’s purring baritone even now.
You might think that calvados has been around forever, but you would be wrong. Hard cider’s popularity in France began with Charlemagne’s first orchards in the ninth century. By the fifteenth century, wines and hard ciders were equally popular. But it wasn’t until Gilles Picot, Sire of Gouberville, distilled his cider for the first time in 1553 that apple brandy was born. By 1603 an apple distiller’s guild was created. Demand grew enormously when the “Little Ice Age” damaged grape vines beginning around 1650, though there was no gratitude for this high-octane savior. Soon after the vineyards recovered, apple brandy was punished for its success; eau de vie de cidre was heavily taxed to protect the powerful cognac and armagnac suppliers. Restrictions for distilling apples commercially weren’t lifted until the French revolution. Apple brandy did not bloom again until the beginning of the nineteenth century, when, because of its potency, it was called up by the French navy during the Napoleonic wars as both an antiseptic and an anesthetic.
Apple brandy came to the rescue again when the phylloxera epidemic devastated the grapes of Europe in the later part of the nineteenth century. Within 30 years, three quarters of France’s vineyards were decimated; some grape varieties were lost forever. It took years for American rootstock to restore health to the remaining French vines. Ironically, imported American vines had brought the devastation in the first place when they were brought to strengthen weaker English and European rootstock; the phylloxera aphids came with them. Since calvados was made from apples and not grapes, it once again took over for cognacs and armagnacs until grape vines flourished once again (the sublime pre-phylloxera wines, usually pre-1870, are still spoken of with hushed, reverent voices as if in the presence of holy relics). The calvados appellation wasn’t made official until 1942.
Old calvados from CalvadosOnline
After years of drinking off-the-shelf calvados, I was inspired to make my own when I read about Christian Drouin’s Fut de Madère calvados aged in old madeira casks. Fine calvados often goes through three different casks, beginning with new oak and then going in used barrels that have held sherry, madeira or cider; using cider barrels imparts a bit of fresh apple flavor to the result.
I already had my beautiful copper still, purchased a few years ago when I found some nineteenth century recipes for absinthe and wanted to dabble in a little creative thaumaturgy. I planted wormwood, hyssop, and lemon balm and made my first batch of absinthe two years ago using inexpensive French brandy as a base. Half a gallon of brandy made around 600 ml (a bit over 2/3 of a wine bottle) of very strong absinthe. After making about six bottles, I felt I was familiar with the distilling process and ready to move on to new challenges. I would make my own calvados.
The farmers’ market at Union Square is full of dozens of varieties of apples and cider––New York and New Jersey are rich with orchards and apples. Our country’s oldest apple brandy maker, Lairds, has been making applejack in New Jersey since Alexander Laird came to America in 1698 and applied his Scotch whiskey making skills to New World apple crops. If you want to make apple brandy, this is a great place to do it.
To begin my New York calvados experiment, I got two gallons of good local cider from
Migliorelli’s Orchard in Tivoli. If you are not pressing your own cider, make sure the cider you buy has no preservatives and that it’s cold pasteurized, not boiled. If at all possible, get a cider made from a blend of apples. Migliorelli’s cider qualified on all fronts. I removed a cup from each of the gallons so there was room for air in the top of the new glass containers. Some people use sulfites (Campden tablets) to kill any other yeast in the mix. I did not.
Next I checked the sugar with a hydrometer, which predicts the alcohol content in your final product: the more sugar, the more alcohol. I read that six percent is ideal. If it is low, dissolve some sugar in cider (a few ounces will bring it up a good deal; I would use unbleached organic sugar if you need to do this. I did not and my alcohol level was low). Next I poured boiling water into my glass bottles and let them sit for ten minutes, then poured out the water and air-dried them. It’s not perfectly sterile but it worked; you don’t want too many additional bacteria to contaminate your mix (there are chemicals for this but I didn’t like the idea).
I took the cider from the plastic jugs and poured it back and forth into my clean glass bottles and added the yeast. Pouring the cider from one container to the other aerates the brew which helps get the yeast going. I put a few layers of clean cheesecloth around the top of the bottle and tied it on so air could come into the container, reserving the screw tops (cheesecloth keeps out the flies that can ruin your mix). From that point on the process is a waiting game, best done around 64-68º; much warmer and the yeast works too fast, much colder and it can take too long. Once every few days I sloshed the cider around in the container to aerate a bit more. I did not use an airlock or any fancy equipment. The cider can get active and foam out so be prepared and pay attention. Of four fermentations in the past year, I had one bum batch; the other gallon right next to it was fine. It can happen. It had a sour, unpleasant smell and had to be tossed.
After about two weeks the cider stopped foaming. I added fresh cider to top off the bottle, leaving about two inches of airspace in the neck. I put the caps on the bottles and let them rest for a month. I did check the cider every few days at the beginning to see if there was any gas building up. There was a tiny bit but then it stopped. I did not want any exploding cider jugs!
My cider was ready a month later and around 6-7 percent alcohol. I bought a half gallon of applejack to enhance my distillation. Now you may say this is cheating, but two gallons of cider wouldn’t make much calvados. More important, I figured that I was only reworking the purchased product and not creating from scratch so that I was not breaking any laws; I started with half a gallon of apple brandy and finished with half a gallon. One day I will make it from scratch with properly sweetened cider, but not until the laws about distilling are relaxed. Since I have a two-gallon still, I had to do two runs.
Into the still went one of my cider bottles and half the bottle of applejack as well as one cored, peeled, and smashed apple. Then I started the dripping. It drips very, very slowly. A gallon of cider and a quart of applejack took over three hours to produce a little over a fifth of liquor. I used two bags of ice (my ice maker couldn’t keep up) because the coil must be cold to condense the steam back to liquid.
I use a hotplate to keep the temperature fairly well regulated and keep the volatile liquid away from an open flame. Never never leave a still unattended for more than a moment or two for safety and to keep an eye on the run. The dripping should be regular and steady. If it starts pouring instead of dripping, the heat is too high and you have likely ruined your mixture by boiling it. You want the still to operate at the optimum temperature of 180º, so you shouldn’t have your heating element blazing. Start a little higher, but when the temperature gauge starts to move, turn it down. It will take quite a while to get going but when it does it will stay in the sweet spot.
When the still starts dripping the first thing you get, at 134ºF, is acetone, then methanol at 147º and ethyl acetate at 171º. Then comes the heart—what you want—the ethanol at 172º. Acetone and methanol smell awful and need to be tossed; they’re called the heads and they are toxic. Once you get much past 180º you are into the tails. A bit of those is fine but stop before you get too far into propanol (180º and above).
My classic alembic still just has two parts but the traditional calvados still has three parts; the liquid is double distilled. It starts at 45 ABV (alcohol by volume) after the first distillation and ends at 70 ABV before it goes into casks and ages. I only distilled once, in the style of Norman country folk (although a few commercial distillers only distill once, it is uncommon).
Though commercial calvados starts out strong, at 140 proof, after two years in barrel it’s closer to 80 or 90: still strong but not crazy strong. Some less reputable makers include more of the less alcoholic tails of the distilling process to lower the proof or add caramel and water to soften the product and put it on the market more quickly. The fine makers take their time, aging their brandy in multiple barrels so evaporation slowly lowers the alcohol while the oak gives it the complex perfume we love.
For aging my brandy, I began with charred French oak cubes. To replicate the effects of varied old barrels, I soaked a few in cider and a few in a tablespoon of old madeira for 5 days. I put the cubes in the bottle and added my clear calvados and a tablespoon of the soaking cider and madeira. After about five months absorbing the oak cubes’ perfumes and being opened every few weeks to lower the alcohol, the harshness mellows and the calvados has that beautiful vanilla smell I love (barrel aging would allow evaporation naturally). At this point it’s fine to use a bit for cooking. My calvados recipes have always been enormously popular with my guests, and why not? They are creamy, rich with apple slices and boozy: dishes that are usually denoted á la Normande because Normandy is synonymous with apples and cream.
Hopefully I will be able to save at least one bottle for six years, until it’s mature, though it’s hard to resist nipping at it. The calvados of dreams sings a siren’s song.