Calvados doesn’t enjoy enough time in the spotlight. Let’s correct that oversight. Here’s our guide on how to drink Calvados. 

Traditional Norman techniques. Modern flavour profiles. Snappy designs. All geared towards creating authentic, tasty booze. One that can change people’s perceptions of a category. That’s the Château de Sassy formula. One that’s working for its cider. A couple of years ago, the family launched a Calvados brand though they’ve actually been making both cider and Calvados since 1852. Sassy brand co-founder and ancestor, Xavier d’Audiffret Pasquier, uses old family recipes today.  

Calvados might not be something you’ve had the pleasure of trying before. Here’s a quick breakdown: it’s a type of brandy that’s made from apples and/or pears, although the former is more prevalent. It’s considered one of the classic French brandies alongside Armagnac and Cognac. But the latter tends to get all the fanfare.

Locally at least, the Norman spirit is part of the culture. But there’s no giant brand flying the flag in the world market. The grand-sounding name might be intimidating for newcomers. But there’s nothing alienating about apples. We all grew up eating them. “For people who are trying to get into dark spirits, I’ve often thought Calvados might be the most accessible,” Maison Sassy’s UK sales manager, Alexander Darley, says. “It’s fresh, clean, light, and has lots of lovely fruitiness”. 

You can mix it, pair it with food, and when you drink a great Calvados neat it tastes like apples. Honestly, who the hell doesn’t like apples? What we have here folks, is the opportunity to fall in love again. With a great spirit that deserves more of the spotlight. According to Darley, that’s exactly the mission Maison Sassy is on. We’re fully on board.

Sassy calvados

Château de Sassy

Nothing but apples: how Sassy makes Calvados 

The cider is made is made at Sassy’s impressive château. Previously, this was sent to local distilleries to make into Calvados. As the appetite for commercially available Calvados grew, the family saw an opportunity to own the whole process. Darley says hundreds of blends were sampled. There was plenty of stock to get through. This is the kind of place where there’s a 100-year-old cask under the kitchen.

The Sassy method begins in the 15 hectares of organic apple orchards that surround Château de Sassy (if you are ever lucky enough to go, you’ll see them from the window). There’s over 30 varieties of apples there and the oldest orchard dates back a century. There’s a mix of loam and clay soils, similar to that you might find in Bordeaux, which tempers the apple’s distinctive acidity with some sweetness. And making Calvados like this means you’re naturally adding a big fresh apple-soaked drop of terroir to the spirit if that’s the kind of thing that gets you going. 

Sassy are very much apple purists. UK law defines cider as containing at least 35% apple or pear juice, which may be from concentrate. But in Normandy, things are much stricter and Sassy insists on a 100% apple recipe. Everything you taste is all the result of the distillation of its small-batch cider (which takes place in a converted stable out the back), made from five apple varieties, a blend based on that 1852 family recipe. Pressing takes place in October and November, with slow alcoholic fermentation at 10-12°C and maturation on fine lees.

Sassy calvados

How do you like these apples?

For Sassy Fine Calvados, a young fruity brandy  is distilled using a column still to give the eau de vie a fresh, clean fruit taste. For the XO, an older, drier cider is distilled and blended with several eau-de-vie ageing from six to 10 years to create a richer, more complex spirit. The eau-de-vie has to spend at least two years in oak barrels by law. For the Fine Calvados, it’s matured for a minimum of that time, initially in 300-litre casks before being moved to larger barrels (up to 2,000 litres), while the XO is a minimum six-years-matured.

Sassy uses old barrels (40 to 80 years) that are low in tannins to accentuate the fruit notes, and also moves the eau-de-vie twice a year into different barrels to oxygenate it for a smoother mouthfeel experience. For the Fine Calvados, this sometimes includes barrels that previously contained Pommeau (a blend of apple juice and apple brandy) to further highlight the fruitiness of the eau-de-vie.

Sassy calvados

Sassy Fine Calvados, a new regular in my drinks cabinet

How should you drink Calvados?

So that’s how you make it. But let’s say I’ve already convinced you and you’ve picked up a bottle of Sassy Fine and the XO, what then? How do you drink Calvados?

Well, they’re both very tasty neat, for a start. You can also mirror the way Calvados is enjoyed in Normandy. It’s a gastronomic region and to cut through the heavy dairy diets common locally, a pear sorbet with a shot of Calva known as the Trou Normand is seen as the ideal antidote. It’s also commonplace to start the day with a Calva coffee, which is exactly what it sounds like. Coffee with a shot of Calva. “If the local doctor wants to find out much you drink, he just asks how many coffees you had,” Darley says. Turns out a Calva a day doesn’t quite keep the doctor away. But then Darley also says that Xavier’s 96-year-old granny swears by it as the secret to long life. At the château, they make their version with a double espresso, a shot of coffee, and honey they make on-site. I’d live forever if that was my life, to be honest.  

But for a new audience, Darley thinks identifiable  serves are the way to introduce you to the joys of Calvados. He goes on: “Start with a Calva Tonic, which has a great ring to it, it’s accessible and conveniently delicious. Let’s face it, the concept of a digestif is not one the average punter engages in. Calvados doesn’t have to just close out your meal, you can drink a Calva Tonic in a pub. Just by adding tonic, you can create some akin to what the brandy soda was for my grandparent’s generation, and it’s not that bad for you either.” 

Twists on the classics are certainly a great way to start. Negronis, Martinez, Sours, and Espresso Martinis are just some of the cracking cocktails I’ve made with Calva (it’s how the cool kids say it) and the vibrant blend of sweet, sharp, and sour notes in the Sassy Fine, in particular, means it always brings it personality into every serve. A Normandy Boilermaker is a great idea too, particularly if you use cider from the same brand. “Don’t forget, no glass of cider hasn’t been improved by a shot of Calva,” Darley says.

Sassy calvados

Give it a shot. Maybe in some coffee. Or on a sorbet. Or with some tonic…

Why shouldn’t you overlook Calvados?

It’s a method that I experienced first-hand when I first tried Sassy Calvados at Coupette (the Calvados kings in the UK, definitely go there) in London. It’s clear the brand has the ambition to modernise the categories it enters, with the rise of gin in the last decade being an inspiration. It certainly went down a treat with the bartenders that night, and why not? It pairs with food and is relentlessly versatile, while the bottle actually fits in the speed rail. This is a big plus for Sassy, who worked with a design agency in London to create a stylish, sleek bottle that abandons the old world, monastic, calligraphy-covered bottles typical in Calvados. It’s moving away from the members’ club, cigar-smoker reputation, and you can actually see the colour of the liquid too.

Sassy is also engaging in numerous partnerships and new product development to establish some momentum for the category. Artists are engaged to create individual labels for exclusive lines in bars and stores, while the brand is also working with family friends on limited-edition expressions. “We’re in talks with the folks at Hine Cognac and other houses, as well as whisky brands, and Churchill Port, who gave us a 500-litre white Port cask for both cider and Calvados,” Darley explains. The most notable collaboration has been with Coupette, however, which now boasts its own Sassy expressions made with head bartender Andrei Marcu (seriously, go there for goodness sake).

Calvados is certainly up against it. It takes a lot of time and effort to change perception, while orchards being cut down to make room for arable farming is also less than ideal increasing development. What’s doubly frustrating about that is brands like Sassy are sustainable in their process by nature. The orchards have no chemical treatment, organic lawnmowers (actual sheep), and beehives to boost the ecosystem through pollination and make honey. They let the apple falls from the tree naturally, which can take years to reach peak condition, utilise waste and don’t add anything artificial. 

Sassy calvados

Coupette’s a great place to head to for some Calvados inspiration

It’s a process that demonstrates the reverential attitude you would have for your craft if you spent over 150 years doing it (and owned a lovely château, that can’t hurt). Sassy wants to share and celebrate Calvados, but not in a manner that compromises its rich historical and cultural importance. These are family recipes with authentic Norman provenance that embrace the contemporary cocktail culture. And it’s working. Slowly but surely, there are more and more interesting bottles of Calvados on back bars and cocktail menus. 

We’re ultimately always going to love a flavour-focused spirit with a distinctive balance of freshness and richness that mixes well and has a great back story. Particularly in the UK, seeing as the population is basically Norman anyway if they go back far enough. “The British royal family spoke French until the Tudors. We’re one marathon away from being on Norman soil,” Darley says. “We should be talking about Normandy like it’s Champagne. We should be talking about Calvados.” It’s a conversation I’ll have any time. While drinking Calvados, obviously.