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A winter warmer, with a touch of apple

Brandy is no longer stuffy, not the least because of Cognac's newfound hipness. But brandy doesn't begin and end with Courvoisier. That's what makers of the apple brandy known as Calvados are keen to telegraph.

Months have been designated for nearly everything, but I was still surprised when a press release recently popped into my inbox touting "Calvados Month."

February already has African-American History Month and American Heart Month on its résumé. Wouldn't it be a bit much to tack on a fête for French apple brandy?

Apparently not. The goal is to expose Calvados to new palates, and the 40-odd New York restaurants hyping Calvados from now until March have one big thing going for them: It's a perfect cold-weather treat.

Brandy is no longer stuffy, not the least because of Cognac's newfound hipness thanks to the unswerving devotion of P. Diddy and Busta Rhymes. But brandy doesn't begin and end with Courvoisier, and I think that's what the Calvados folks are keen to telegraph.

Grape-based Cognac and Armagnac are byproducts of France's wine industry. Calvados, a defining drink of the French region of Normandy, is distilled from fermented apple cider and then aged two years or more in oak barrels. It is a clear, pure expression of fruit, rounder and with less bite than its grape-based cousins.

"We don't add anything at any step of the process," says Calvados maker producer Benoit Pellerin. "In the Calvados bottle, you only have original fruit and time."

The owner of the Père Magloire, Boulard and Lecompte brands, Pellerin knows how to sell brandy, and he'd like to grab even a smidgen of Cognac's enormous success. While 40 million bottles of Cognac are sold each year in the United States, the nation consumes just 200,000 bottles of Calvados — no surprise, since it is virtually unknown outside of a circle of savvy bartenders and conoisseurs.

Still, Calvados has a lot on its side, including history. While its name is taken from the French départment responsible that produces most Calvados, Normandy has been producing distilled spirits from hard cider since at least 1553.

The Calvados name was attached to the liquor about the time Allied troops were arriving on nearby beaches during the D-Day invasion. While Cognac has been considered a refined gentleman's beverage, Calvados has long been an integral part of life in the Norman countryside — finding its way into local dishes that cook pork or mussels with Calvados and cream.

And don't forget the trou Normand, a traditional half-glass of Calvados (now sometimes replaced by apple sorbet) served midway through a meal.

Brandy, hold the men's club
The Brandy Library, in New York's Tribeca, serves two dozen types of Calvados and empties about eight bottles a week — both straight and in such drinks as the Pomme Royale, which combines pommeau (a mix of Calvados and apple juice) with Champagne.

"There's so much fruit in the nose," says general manager Victoria Cave. "It's attractive to people who might be looking for more fruit than Cognac or Armagnac might offer."

Female drinkers, for example, who both Cave and the Calvados producers see as their big market. (A current tagline: "One sip and you'll know why Eve sinned.") Sure, that plays to fruity-drink stereotypes, but it's also a savvy move to position Calvados as what Cave calls "a nice introduction to brandy," with a mellower mouthfeel and without Cognac's mens'-club overtones.

Plus, most Cognac drinkers in this country haven't encountered Calvados -- which gives its fans a knowledgable leg up at the bar. And some bartenders are willing to evangelize about it. "Calvados is classy," offers Jay Kuehner of Seattle's Sambar.

Pellerin has ambitious goals: to make American drinkers thirsty enough to consume 2 to 4 million bottles a year. It could be within reach, though, if Calvados can find its way onto more U.S. shelves. It's an opportunity not just for Normandy's big names but also for obscure artisanal bottlings from many of France's 6,000 Calvados makers.

You can buy Calvados in a variety of ages and qualities, just like Cognac; many even use the same VSOP and XO age denominations. If you enjoy the taste, skip the younger stuff and splurge for an pricier bottle, notably Calvados Pays d'Auge, a double-distilled version with stricter production and longer aging requirements.

Prices generally start above $30, but you'll taste the difference. Most liquor stores carry just one or two types, but keep an eye out for respected smaller producers like Roger Groult and Coeur de Lion, in addition to larger names like Boulard.

Then pour a glass and do as the Normans do: Warm the Calvados with your hands and ignore the chill outside.

A dash of apple
Calvados purists opt for their drink straight up in a bulbous snifter, in part because the warmth of your hands helps warm the liquor, which in turn can enhance the aromas in your glass.  It makes the perfect finish to a meal or companion with a tarte tatin (apple tart) or vanilla ice cream. (And if you ever see Calvados ice cream on a menu, well, what're you waiting for?)

But even some Calvados makers  -- perhaps to boost year-round sales -- have also suggested serving it over ice in a lowball glass. And bartenders are reconsidering it as an alternative "brown liquor" with less bite than whiskey or rum.

Calvados Tonic

  • 1 part Calvados
  • 3 parts tonic water

Pour Calvados over ice, follow with tonic and stir. Garnish with lime.

Calvados Cocktail

  • 1½ oz. Calvados
  • 1½ oz. orange juice
  • ¾ oz. triple sec
  • ¾ oz. orange bitters

Pour ingredients together into a shaker over ice. Stir or shake, then strain into a cocktail glass.

Pomme Royale (Adapted from The Brandy Library)

  • 1 part Calvados or pommeau (Calvados mixed with cider must)
  • 4-5 parts Champagne or dry sparkling wine

Pour the Calvados (or pommeau) into the bottom of a Champagne flute. Fill gently with the wine. Since Calvados has far more alcohol (about 80 proof) than pommeau, you can use less of it, to taste.

Metro (Adapted from Sambar)

  • 3-4 parts Calvados
  • 1 part sweet Dubonnet
  • 1/2-1 part Cointreau

Add the ingredients, to taste, over ice in a shaker in similar proportions to a Manhattan. Stir or shake, and strain into a martini glass.