True calvados is a spirit appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) and subject to strict regulations about where (Normandy) and how (aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two years) it's produced. But domestic distilleries have been making fruit-forward brandies since at least 1780, when Robert Laird founded America's first commercial distillery and began producing our first apple brandy, Laird's Applejack. Two centuries later, calvados and its local brethren, traditionally sipped as an aperitif or digestif, are making their way onto modern cocktail menus.
"There are American producers making apple brandies that rival anything coming from France," says Jessica Sanders, co-owner of drink.well. in Austin, namechecking Oregon's Clear Creek Distillery and California's Germain-Robin Heirloom as two of her favorite domestic producers. "Of course, Laird's Bonded Apple Brandy is one my favorite spirits on the planet to sip," she says. "And at 100 proof, it makes a great backbone for cocktails."
"Calvados has a woodsy, earthy and spicy taste, with the actual apple flavor in the background," Stephen Shelton, co-owner and bartender at The Lexington House in Los Gatos, California, says. "American brandy is the opposite, with the fresh, floral apple flavor in the forefront." He likes California-based St. George Reserve, which combines the best of both worlds. "It balances those old-world flavors with a long-lasting fresh apple palate," he says. "It pays homage to its history while still maintaining a modern craft taste."
Sip for yourself at one of these apple brandy-loving bars across the country:
Laird's Old Apple Brandy was the first apple brandy produced in the US.
drink.well. in Austin, TX
In the Pomme Pomme Squad cocktail, French VSOP calvados meets a big splash of cognac, rich brown sugar syrup and dashes of creole and allspice bitters, served in an Herbsaint-rinsed old-fashioned glass. "The longer VSOP aged calvados sits in oak barrels, the more it will showcase that warm, round vanilla and spice character," Sanders says.
Raines Law Room in New York, NY
The Pioneer Spirit, a play on the old-fashioned, blends Laird's 7.5-year apple brandy, WhistlePig 10-year rye, Angostura bitters and orgeat syrup. "I love the Laird's Bonded Apple Brandy. It has great apple notes but a body that reminds me of rye," bar manager Meaghan Dorman says.
Raven & Rose in Portland, OR
Raven & Rose carries a wide variety of calvados and apple brandies, and this season it's featuring a barrel of Germain-Robin Heirloom apple brandy. "The brandy has amazing great apple flavor, alive and complex," bar manager David Shenaut says. "I like it better than most calvados." Find it in cocktails like the Lodi Rider, with apple brandy, Cocchi Americano, lemon and an apple syrup made with first-of-the-season Lodi apples.
The Lexington House in Los Gatos, CA
"We don't always use apple brandy in a cocktail, because sometimes its delicate apple flavor gets lost," Shelton says. "But we have one cocktail that enhances the spirit as opposed to covering it up." That would be the Apple Toddy—St. George apple brandy stirred with a honey shrub, Angostura bitters and hot water, and served with a clove-studded lemon wheel.
Eastern Standard in Boston, MA
"I think what makes calvados so valuable this time of year is its versatility," Eastern Standard's Bob McCoy says. "You can use it with bright, tart, apple-based ingredients or alongside rich, dark or spicy flavors with equal success." The bar captures the latter in Five by Five, made with earthy Daron Calvados, Dolin Blanc vermouth and Bénédictine.
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