Intoxicating Apple Brandies
Calvados is the king of apple brandies, but Canada is making apple brandy of its own
Humankind discovered millennia ago that it could make intoxicating beverages from any fruit — or vegetable, for that matter. The beverages that have survived to modern times are those with pleasing aromas and flavours to go along with the requisite socially disinhibiting effects.
One of the most popular and versatile fruits is the apple, which comes in a large number of varieties with a range of sugar and acid levels. Apples can make everything from light cider, which satisfies at very low alcohol levels of two to three percent, all the way up to eau-de-vie at 40 percent alcohol or more.
If you make a cider or wine from apples, then distill it, you have a clear spirit known as an eau-de-vie in France or other French- speaking regions, or what Germans call schnaps. There are other versions from other European countries, and an increasing number of small, artisanal, craft distillers in North America also use apples as a base. America has its applejack, and Canadian distillers are increasing apple brandy production every year.
Clear spirits must be aged in oak for a period of time to be legally eligible to carry the name “brandy.” The minimum required aging period is six months in Canada.
The ultimate apple brandy, the royalty of apple-based spirits, is Calvados, from Normandy in northern France. Calvados is an AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) beverage, with production criteria and quality standards similar to Cognac, the most famous of grape-based spirits. There are several theories on the origin of the name “Calvados,” one of which is that it comes from a sailor’s description of the reportedly barren land, an amalgamation of the Latin calvus or Galician calvos (“hairless”) with the French dos (“back”).
AOC Calvados is an apple eau-de-vie that has been aged a minimum of two years in oak. There are two sub-regions of Calvados: AOC Calvados Pays d’Auge is known for the quality of its brandy, and AOC Calvados Domfrontais requires at least three years of oak aging. Some Calvados takes even longer to make, since certain producers age their cider in oak for a year or more before distillation. It is also not uncommon to find premium versions where the distilled product is aged much longer, spending 25 years or more in oak.
Besides AOC standards, one thing that separates Calvados from basic apple brandy is the sheer number of apple varieties used — more than 100 for some producers. Calvados can also contain pears, with no limit on regular Calvados, but no more than 30 percent pears in Calvados Pays d’Auge. All apples and pears must come from a list of AOC-approved varieties.
Calvados is hardly rare, but most is consumed in Europe, particularly in France and Germany. The North American market is relatively small, but premium spirits have been experiencing slow, steady growth here.
Canadian Apple Brandies
For those interested in exploring apple brandy beyond Calvados, several homegrown, apple-based spirits have cropped up in Canada, led by areas where apple production is a significant part of the agricultural economy: namely Atlantic Canada and Quebec, but also British Columbia.
From B.C., Canados, produced by Okanagan Spirits, is an oak-aged spirit distilled mainly from Hyslop Crab apples. Merridale Ciderworks, in Cobble Hill, makes an Apple Oh de Vie from a blend of French and English cider apples.
A renowned Quebec apple brandy is Calijo, from Michel Jodoin, selected from barrels containing three-year-aged apple eau-de-vie, distilled from a cider fashioned from local Cortland, Lobo and Empire varieties. Jodoin also makes an apple eau-de-vie and a very special eight-year-old XO apple brandy.
Atlantic Canada has experienced a recent wave of new microdistilleries, including some apple brandy producers. Winegarden Estate, in Baie Verte, N.B., is Atlantic Canada’s first modern artisanal distillery. It opened in the mid-1980s, and makes a range of spirits from various New Brunswick fruit. Winegarden makes apple schnaps as well as five-year and 10-year-old apple-based brandy. Ironworks Distillery opened two years ago in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, and makes vodka from apples, as well as brandy.
Calvados may not get the attention that Cognac does, but any fan of fine spirits should keep a bottle of Calvados on hand, not to mention a nice bottle of locally made apple brandy for comparison.
Tasting Notes for Apple Brandies
Boulard Grand Solage Calvados Pays d’Auge, France
AB $29/500ml, SK $38/500ml, MB $34/500ml, QC $22/375ml, NB $26/375ml, NL $35/500ml
Deep brownish-gold, this has lots of oak aroma, alongside caramelized apples. It is warm, with bold spiced-apple flavours. It is made from a blend of 3- to 5-year- aged Calvados.
Ironworks Apple Brandy, Nova Scotia
NS $35/375ml distillery
A light, pale-gold brandy, aged 2 years in Hungarian oak. Made from local apples, this has a fairy subtle apple and lightly spicy, vanilla-tinged oak nose. It is straightforward, clean on the finish and smooth.
Winegarden Johnny Ziegler Fruit Brandy, New Brunswick
NB $25 distillery
A blended fruit brandy made from New Brunswick fruit and aged in oak for 5 years, this has smooth, round flavours of apples, with oak complexity. Quite easy drinking. Winegarden also makes a 10-year-old Johnny Ziegler Senior, with more prominent oak.
Domaine Familial L. Dupont Réserve Calvados du Pays d'Auge, France
Aged for 4 years in 25 percent new oak, this double distilled Calvados is pale gold, with an attractive apple and herbal nose. It is light-bodied, but fairly warm in the mouth, with clean apple flavours and lingering alcohol.
Michel Jodoin Calijo Brandy de Pommes, Quebec
Three years in oak gives Calijo distinct caramel notes, which soften up and complement the alcohol and ripe apple flavours. Quite smooth and appealing.