The UK’s back bars aren’t exactly groaning under the weight of calvados, but that’s finally starting to change. Clinton Cawood takes a look at what this most versatile of spirits brings to the table
One day we’ll look back and wonder why back bars were so bereft of apple spirits for so long, and so woefully absent from cocktail lists. Calvados has heritage, a variety of styles to choose from, and serious potential when it comes to cocktails too. It might be the most underrated tool in a bartender’s arsenal.
The UK bar that’s arguably doing the most to redress this is Coupette in London, putting this apple brandy from Normandy front and centre, not only on the back bar, but in its cocktails too. A showcase for its impressive calvados collection is the simply named Apples, a carbonated highball made with calvados and apple juice that changes monthly.
Proving calvados isn’t just for French-spirit specialist bars, however, is Swift.
‘We use it fairly liberally. It’s currently in two drinks on our downstairs menu,’ says Bobby Hiddleston, co-owner of Swift. ‘Calvados is a wonderfully versatile spirit, giving a delicacy that other brandies cannot replicate.’
Just down the road from Coupette at The Sun Tavern in Bethnal Green, you might expect wall-to-wall Irish whiskey rather than a French apple spirit, but the bar has previously paired the latter with black walnut bitters for an autumnal serve. Their Le Bas cocktail, meanwhile, is a real celebration of all things French, combining calvados, cognac, Green Chartreuse, Picon, beetroot and fennel juice.
‘Calvados brings a fruitiness and depth to cocktails and can be used in place of dark spirits like certain rums and whiskey,’ says The Sun Tavern’s Jamie Jones. ‘Stirred down drinks are great with calvados, but a simple Highball is a winner too.’
Heading back to Soho, you’ll also find calvados on the menu at Milk & Honey. In the classic Pan American Clipper, it combines the French apple spirit with lime, grenadine and a touch of absinthe. In The Gentleman’s Companion (1939), Charles H Baker Jr stipulates one jigger of applejack – an American blend of apple brandy and neutral grain spirits – for this drink, but adds that ‘calvados apple brandy is better still’.
Milk & Honey’s Pierre-Marie Bisson would agree, describing calvados as ‘crisper and fresher, but also drier’ than its American cousin, which has ‘more spice, and more wood on the nose, closer to a light bourbon’.
For Bisson, the strength of calvados is in its versatility. ‘You can use the young ones to mix in cocktails, bringing crisp flavours like apple but also pear, while the older ones bring more baked fruit, stone fruit or even woody notes,’ he says.
‘Anything shaken up will be fresh and crisp, while anything stirred will have depth without being overly heavy on the palate.’
Echoing The Sun Tavern’s use of both cognac and calvados in its Le Bas, Hiddleston at Swift recommends using calvados together with other spirits.
‘As well as being a great base for a cocktail, it also helps to be the backbone of other spirits, giving a light florality when needed,’ he explains.
In addition to its versatility in cocktails, calvados works perfectly well on its own. ‘We sometimes sell calvados with a beer, as you would a whiskey,’ says Jones. ‘It’s a great way for people to try new spirits, especially when matched with the right beer, or even cider.’
Bisson takes a slightly different approach. ‘We have some vintage calvados that our guests enjoy without us having to push them too much,’ he says. ‘Younger calvados can be enjoyed neat too, but you have to explain the difference between brandy, apple brandy and calvados.’
This is only the start for the humble apple. Once calvados has achieved its rightful place, there’s plenty more to explore, from pommeau to applejack, and some local apple brandies too.
Top of the tree
UK back bars aren’t exactly buckling under the weight of calvados – that’s the gin weighing it down – but this doesn’t mean it’s absent in our bars either. Take some tips from those who have sought out the good stuff already
Pierre-Marie Bisson, Milk & Honey
Christian Drouin Sélection AOC Calvados NV
‘I am lucky to have this in the rail – my favourite calvados available in the UK. It is made from both apples and pears in the Pays d’Auge, and it’s crisp and fruity, and very easy to drink either neat or in cocktails.’
40% abv, £37/70cl, New Generation Wines, 020 7928 7300
Jamie Jones, The Sun Tavern
Dupont Fine Reserve
‘This is a great calvados, with notes of vanilla and dried fruit that make it very versatile when thinking about winter cocktails as well as summer drinks. It’s also good just served neat with a beer, or as a digestif.’
40% abv, £40/70cl, Marussia Beverages, 020 7724 5009
Bobby Hiddleston, Swift
Père Magloire VSOP
‘There’s some wonderful high-end calvados on the market, but what I like about the spirit is its approachability. My favourite at the moment is our house, Père Magloire VSOP.’
40% abv, £34.99/70cl, Emporia Brands, 01483 458700