Swill is our bi-monthly column dedicated to liquor, wine, beer, and every other delicious dram that falls under the broader umbrella of booze. But it’s more than just tasting notes scribbled on a cocktail napkin — Swill is about getting outside of your comfort zone, trying new things, and exploring the big, wide world of libations. One week you might catch us halfway through a bottle of single-malt scotch, and the week after that we might be buzzing on some Ugandan moonshine made from bananas. This column is just one big boozy adventure, so grab yourself a glass and join us for another round.
Now that fall is in full swing, it’s prime season for apple-based booze — and we’re not just talking about cider, either. Don’t get us wrong, we like a glass of crisp, bubbly cider as much as the next guy, but it’s just the tip of the alcoholic iceberg. Dig a little bit deeper and you’ll find that apples have a lot more to offer.
Cider –aka fermented apple juice– was undoubtedly the first alcoholic drink to be made from apples. Its origins can be traced back to centuries ago, and over the years (as is the case with most fermented beverages) our ancestors eventually figured out ways to make it stronger.
Sometime around 1555, a Frenchman by the name of Guilles de Gouberville wrote in his diary about a visitor who suggested a method of making a clear, highly alcoholic beverage from cider. Once fermented, the cider could be heated so that the alcohol would rise with the steam and be collected in a copper pot. A little time in an oak barrel took the edge off and made it a bit more mellow. Originally this concoction might have been called eau-de-vie de cidre, but it soon earned the name Calvados, after the region of France it was produced in.
Over time, as distillers experimented with different types and blends of apples, Calvados evolved and became more sophisticated. Today, it’s a very specific elixir, containing at least 70 percent bitter or bittersweet apples, and no more than 15 percent of those of the sharp variety — most of which must come from a very specific region of France.
If given the opportunity, you’ll definitely want to try some of this stuff. Apple aromas and flavors burst vividly from the glass, in jagged flashes that seem to penetrate deeply into the complex essence of the fruit itself. Clarity, purity, tart citrus, cinnamon spice, earthiness, mintiness — these are just some of the sensations you’ll experience in a glass of good Calvados.
Thing is, it’s a bit of a pain in the ass to track down — at least the authentic stuff anyway. If you dig through the brandy section of your local liquor store, you might find an bottle of it, but here in the States you’re far more likely to find applejack — a clone that’s simply made from apples outside of northern France. For the casual enthusiast, however, the difference in taste is negligible. Just get your hands on a bottle and start experimenting. It’s wonderful taken neat, and also lends itself well to any number of fall cocktails.
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